For a musical icon as consistently deified in the classic-rock canon as Jimi Hendrix, it would be far too reductive to shoehorn him into the overripe “instant rock star” tropes that have riddled the vast majority of pop-culture films. Much like the Hendrix depicted by Andre Benjamin — Outkast’s Andre 3000 — “JIMI: All is By My Side” offers a meekly subversive contextualization on the standard classic rock biopic, and while it might not revolutionize the form, it is ambitious in its own right for not succumbing to the genre’s multitude of pitfalls.
In the course of “All is By My Side,” director-writer John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) explores the tenuous year prior to the breakout Monterey International Pop Music Festival performance that propelled Jimi Hendrix to the global consciousness. Focusing solely on Hendrix’s gradual ascendance from a struggling cool-cat playing second fiddle in Manhattan nightclubs to a mesmerizing performer inching upon the upper echelons of fame is a precarious decision, one that might alienate Hendrix purists and rock-crit nerds.
Yet Ridley, in his effort to straddle the line between left-of-center indie flick and traditionalist rock fodder, is able to combine elements of both without hamming up this pivotal touchstone in Hendrix’s career.
Benjamin’s subtly revelatory portrayal of Hendrix is a key element of “All is By My Side.” Nearly every facet of his performance — his hushed, contemplative mannerisms, his notorious left-handed guitar-playing abilities, even his idealized, space-age platitudes — is golden, a nuanced depiction that fits the Outkast rapper better than the tight polka-dot button downs and vintage military jackets he dons throughout the film. Imogen Poots (“Need for Speed”) fares just as well depicting the chic socialite — and Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards’ girlfriend — Linda Keith, infusing the film with a much-needed stability as a foil to Hendrix’s perpetually stargazing dreaminess. She serves as benefactor, mentor and critic to Hendrix, stringing along industry bigwigs to witness Hendrix’s groundbreaking talent, and her presence in the film and in Hendrix’s life during this stage in his career is unparalleled.
Ridley’s directing plays itself out like a delirious fever dream: Entire conversations drown out repeatedly in the din of nightclubs and bars, extended scenes are muted until the murmur emanating from a radio eventually envelops the moment, scenes interpose one another with an ever-so-slight restraint. This hazy, off-the-cuff feel works, for the most part, in the context of Hendrix’s rise to prominence — the foggy-eyed luster that permeates the film may as well be pulled directly from Hendrix’s worldview. Yet “All is By My Side” falters when it tries to juxtapose this narcotized tinge from rags-to-riches stardom with a pensive look into more dramatic territory in Hendrix’s life.
Archival photos from Hendrix’s childhood are interspersed during a particularly strained long-distance call between him and his father, a faintly melancholy moment that grounds Hendrix in the midst of his post-London euphoria. Scenes of black London protests are collaged early on in the film with little context until Hendrix, in what could have possibly been the most poignant scene in “All is By My Side,” engages in a contentious dispute with the renowned black revolutionary Michael X on his role as a revolutionary black figure in the undeniably vanilla rock milieu of the 1960s.
Both scenes are tense, climactic moments in the film; yet by conjoining these vital episodes in Hendrix’s life with distracting multimedia pieces, they ultimately detract from the tumult of these events and become slight footnotes in his tale.
Plenty of Hendrix films have been produced in the years after his tragic death, but adding yet another production emphasizing the rise and drug-induced fall of this legend would have been a true disservice to Hendrix and his legacy — his disinclination toward categorization was the one facet of his demeanor that lingered posthumously. As spotty as “All is By My Side” is as an accurate biographical testimony to Jimi Hendrix, Ridley and company have managed to encapsulate the star’s freewheeling spirit through the film — truly an insurmountable accomplishment.
“JIMI: All Is By My Side” is playing at UC Theater.