Breaking the mould and making fresh material out of things that have been around for decades is, arguably, one of Jimi Hendrix’s most enduring traits. Reshaping the jazz, blues and rock music of his peers, he spent much of the late 1960s burning up everything in his wake. Fueled by his electric riffs and eclectic approach to life, he stands as an instant cultural reference point and undeniable power player of the 60s. Director John Ridley – perhaps best known for penning the 12 Years a Slave (2013) screenplay – approaches his Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side (2013) in a similar manner and, in doing so, breathes new life into the currently bloated genre of biopics.
All Is by My Side chooses to focus on the first two years of Hendrix’s (the deftly proselytizing André Benjamin) budding career, when he was whisked away to England with the promise of honing his skills and clocking stage time. Ridley succeeds as a screenwriter here in choosing to restrict the narrative to a small window of a large life. Biopics are notorious for working to compress every major event of a subject’s life into two hours – a feat that is rarely well done. Recent examples like Get on Up (2014) and The Theory of Everything (2014) should be considered in regards to this. Here, the sparing dialogue and healthy dose of artistic license regarding narrative work well within the time-frame: rather than the forced absorption of a whole life, we can observe this iteration of Hendrix in a more uninhibited way.
The languorous and nearly experimental narration applied to Hendrix’s time in London means that Ridley’s version of the man remains open to interpretation. An early sequence involving him and Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) portrays their first meeting. Overlapping dialogue, jump cuts and a lo-fi atmosphere allow Hendrix to be set up as an aspirational and cool individual. Time can spent figuring out just who he is in these opening moments without the force of traditional narrative techniques. Equally refreshing is that this biopic lacks the one element that necessitates it: the music. Due to licensing issues, the film contains nary a song of Hendrix’s, merely scenes of him wailing and ripping through guitar chords with the ease of an old pro.
The potential overshadowing of Hendrix by his own work is gone, leaving room for the film to breathe. There’s a choppy, hazy nostalgia to the visuals that recalls the aesthetic of a Super 8 camera or a Polaroid photo and helps filter the images onscreen into period-appropriateness. Scenes are cut together like a découpage portrait and produce an experimental, dreamy effect. It unspools like a home movie, the viewer peeking into Hendrix’s earliest brushes with stardom and seeing the capabilities of a man who would quickly become a legend. Jimi: All Is by My Side is ultimately a beautifully nascent picture, one that should be consumed just as coolly as the vibes of its subject.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem