“The main thing here tonight is, we’re trying to give somebody some kinda natural true feeling, for themselves, and maybe you can like, grasp these pieces of electricity that is…hittin’ you. I don’t know if they’re hittin’ you in the chest maybe, closest to your heart,” Jimi Hendrix said to his audience at Oakland’s Winterland Ballroom after performing an expansive version of “Are You Experienced?” Not one for stage patter, Hendrix was obliged to pause before launching into “Manic Depression” because of technical issues. “I’m talking like this because the amplifier’s broken, and it’s gonna take about two minutes to fix, and I’d like to say this anyway, and there’s the time to say it.” This was in October of 1968. In two years Hendrix would be dead, aged 27, due to the effects of an accidental overdose of sleeping pills.
For Hendrix, the pursuit of the “natural true feeling” was the ultimate one. Today, it’s what remains for us as listeners: We don’t hear him in the context of the time in which he made his music. Hendrix’s early death freezes our image of him. But the absence of Hendrix also means that second and third generation fans have to take his fabled charisma — “When we walked down the streets in London, sometimes people would just stop and stare at him like he was some kind of apparition,” Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s one-time live-in girlfriend, told biographer Charles Cross — somewhat on faith.
Of course, it’s there in the music. But it’s a part of the music, and not even a discrete or detachable part: it’s mixed in with the inventiveness, the intimations of genius, the sheer sonic pleasure of it, the electricity hitting you in the chest. The joy, the humor, the fury. Hendrix’s final, fully realized studio album, the long Electric Ladyland (originally released as a double LP) is not just a tour-de-force of his amazing guitar playing, but a deft, almost-tossed-off seeming demonstration of Hendrix’s ability to take harmony-group, R&B, jazz and early art-rock idioms (and more) and turn them into…Hendrix music. It’s both a unique and textbook example of the seemingly obvious: that the art ultimately defines the artist.
So the writer and director John Ridley finds himself at a distinct disadvantage from the outset with his film Jimi: All Is By My Side, which depicts a crucial 12 months in the life of Hendrix, despite having the no-slouch-in-the-charisma-and-talent department André Benjamin playing Hendrix. Hendrix’s estate, now controlled by his stepsister Janie, denied Ridley the rights to any of Hendrix’s recordings. Songs Hendrix covered were obtainable, and they are recorded in pastiche/tribute style by an ace band: Waddy Wachtel on guitar, Leland Sklar on bass and Kenny Aronoff on drums, with Benjamin singing. (One is apt to tire quickly of the multiple iterations of “Wild Thing,” one of Hendrix’s more novelty-value show stoppers.) But it’s not only not the real thing, it’s nothing like the real thing. I’m forever in admiration, even awe, of Wachtel for his spectacular contributions to modern rock milestones such as Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy and (especially) Bryan Ferry’s The Bride Stripped Bare, but the approximations of Hendrix music he concocts with Sklar and Aronoff are a catalog of psychedelic clichés. A Hendrix acolyte, unaware of Ridley’s challenge, might find themselves distinctly frustrated as All Is By My Side‘s narrative lurches toward the recording of The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s debut album Are You Experienced, thinking that the “it,” to which the movie is consistently implicitly alluding, will finally happen with the opening notes of “Purple Haze.” It doesn’t. And viewers who have little or no notion of the music will seriously wonder what the big deal about this guy was.
Because here’s the other thing: the depiction of what we call genius, musical or otherwise, is a tough thing for a dramatic narrative to do. This is largely because what we call genius involves a lot of work, and watching work in the context of a fictionalized life story can be pretty boring. One reason Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus is a compelling drama is because its focus is on a creative rivalry, and the resentment one mediocre musician feels about the greatness of a musician he considers morally unworthy. For the dramatic fulcrum of All Is By My Side, Ridley creates something of a love triangle. The movie begins in 1966 with Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a British model and girlfriend of Rolling Stone Keith Richards, seeing Hendrix backing R&B journeyman Curtis Knight and subsequently taking him under her wing. In Ridley’s movie, Keith turns Hendrix on to LSD for the first time, and tries (unsuccessfully) to get her industry connections (including Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham and future punk godfather Seymour Stein) interested in his talent, and even loans him one of her famous boyfriend’s guitars. Once in London, Hendrix takes up with Etchingham, played by Hayley Atwell and depicted, in stark contrast to Keith’s upper-crust sophisto, as a brash, pushy party girl. (Etchingham has strenuously objected to the movie in the press, stating that she offered her consultation services to the filmmakers and didn’t even receive the courtesy of a refusal.) This rubs Linda very much the wrong way, despite the fact that she’s resisted Hendrix’s sexual advances. Much tetchy and symbolically-loaded swapping of the aforementioned loaner guitar follows.
In Charles Cross’s Hendrix biography Room Full Of Mirrors, the initial interactions between Keith and Hendrix described above are plainly depicted as things that just happened, and Cross steers clear of speculations on the relationship’s possible sexual dimension. While Linda Keith’s intervention in Hendrix’s career was helpful to the point of being arguably crucial, Cross does not bestow any kind of “without whom” status on Keith. Ridley, on the other hand, makes a muse out of her. There are a lot of dramatically sound reasons for doing this; but in Ridley’s film, the dynamic has the possibly undesired effect of making Hendrix look like a bit of a rube. Keith lets Hendrix know early on that the R&B that Hendrix plays behind Knight is kind of “bumpkinish,” and this rocks Benjamin’s Hendrix into some serious forehead-crinkling. The real Hendrix, on the other hand, had no problem pulling out Earl King’s “Come On (Let the Good Times Roll)” a staple of the genre, for the forward-facing Electric Ladyland.
Am I doing some musicological nit-picking here? I sure am. But that’s because without that, one is likely to come up with an unappealing caricature of Hendrix, and that’s what Jimi: All Is By My Side finally amounts to. The movie, which does not credit Cross’s biography as a source, uses (and changes, or arguably distorts) many of the anecdotes therein, including one in which an enraged Hendrix physically attacks Etchingham with a telephone receiver. In Cross’s book, the event is depicted as highly uncharacteristic. While an accomplished traveler in psychedelics, Hendrix simply couldn’t handle liquor. “Any aggression he displayed was usually linked to excessive drinking…his quick temper…seemed in such contrast to his normally polite manner.” Hendrix’s traumatic childhood (into which Cross’ biography digs deep), combined with the permissive mien of his time and environment, not to mention his vocation, led to not-unpredictable problems with intimacy and personal commitment. But as depicted in All Is By My Side, all of these considerations are compressed so as to create a bald and distasteful picture of a Violent Black Man With Woman Problems. In another scene, Etchingham whinges about wanting to go out and have fun while Hendrix, the windows of his apartment papered over to enhance his desired isolation, stares vegetatively at a television. This is supposed to be someone whose command of his instrument extended forwards, backwards, upside-down and sideways over every millimeter of the fretboard and beyond, who is always depicted by friends and colleagues as never not having a guitar within arm’s reach.
It’s also unhelpful that Ridley, who’s an accomplished, indeed Oscar-winning (for 12 Years A Slave) writer, is a pretty poor director. While generally disinclined to depict Hendrix’s interiority, he pulls some Sight-and-Sound 101 tricks when Hendrix first “experiences” LSD — drop out the audio, flash-cut to Pertinent Images From The Character’s Past, and so on. And at some of the basics, he’s practically helpless. His depiction of the legendary October 1966 London Polytechnic Cream concert, at which the then utterly unknown Hendrix asked to share the stage and jam with the trio, depicts Eric Clapton as both a master of sarcasm and a crybaby who can’t take being shown up. Regardless of the accuracy of this depiction (and both Ridley and Benjamin have taken pains to point out that they aimed for an “impressionist” portrait rather than a historical document, for what it’s worth), the way the whole event is staged and shot makes it look like it took place in someone’s not particularly crowded basement rec room. Ridley’s clearly constrained by budget — it’s almost amusing when he chooses to depict, say, era-appropriate-costumed Benjamin and Poots in a wide shot, and there’s an extra sitting nearby whose denim shirt was clearly a Gap purchase from 2011 — but a director more experienced with handling cinematic space also knows how to cheat his or her way into a more authentic-seeming period atmosphere.
“Not necessarily digging, maybe the…us ourselves, but just try to dig the message,” Hendrix said to his audience at Winterland in the midst of his amp trouble. What was the message? In Ridley’s film, in conversation with a black political activist, Hendrix’s character delivers a rare zinger: “When the power of love takes over the love of power, that’s when things will change.” In one of his final interviews, the real Hendrix said “I’m workin’ on music to be completely, utterly a magic science, where it’s all pure positive. It can’t work if it’s not positive. The more doubts and negatives you knock out of anything, the heavier it gets and the clearer it gets. And the deeper it gets into whoever’s ’round it. It gets contagious.” Whatever Ridley and Benjamin might have intended, their resultant portrait of Hendrix is ultimately more ego than electricity, and hence, a failure.