Jimi: All Is By My Side tells a fascinating story with interesting people, but somewhere along the way, the makers of this film forgot to add any energy to their finished product. It begins at the Savoy Theatre, where Hendrix is about to go out and perform, before the film flashes back to a nightclub in New York City, where Linda Keith discovers Hendrix (Andre Benjamin) playing backup guitar. Amazed with how good he is, she goes backstage and offers him drugs, then tells him that he needs to become noticed. She brings agents to see Jimi, and even brings him one of Keith Richards’s guitars, but they are turned off by his lack of charisma onstage. Linda chides him for not owning the stage when he’s out there.
Finally, they get a break when Linda bumps into Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the bassist for the Animals who has decided to start producing bands. Linda informs him that she has an act for him, then tells Jimi to play the blues at his concert, because that’s what Chandler loves. It works, and Chandler is soon trying to bring Jimi to London. Unfortunately, Jimi doesn’t have a birth certificate and so can’t get a passport. Then, he has to break the contracts he signed as a studio player in America before he can play in London.
How these scenes are handled highlights a key problem with the film: a lack of urgency. Hendrix was one of the most charismatic musicians who ever lived, and yet much of the film is on one low energy level. The performances, especially by Andre Benjamin as Hendrix and Imogen Poots as Linda Keith, keep the film from lacking interest, but when the film returns to the Savoy and shows Hendrix teaching his bandmates how to play “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” moments before they’re about to take the stage, the excitement caused by the build-up and payoff reminds one of how lacking it has been in this picture. In fact, most of Hendrix’s concerts in London are disasters, including one in which he spends most of the concert tuning his guitar.
The second issue is the film’s treatment of secondary characters, especially women. They exist in the picture only as romantic interests for Hendrix. When Keith finds Hendrix in bed with a woman soon after he arrives in London (Kathy Etchingham, played by Hayley Atwell), she disappears until after he brutally attacks Kathy with a telephone, then breaks up with her. Kathy disappears when Ida (Ruth Negga), a woman Jimi meets in a bookstore, gets with Jimi. She, likewise, vanishes once Keith is back in the picture. Keith is also the only female who appears to have any sort of backstory. They all have personalities, but the audience knows nothing about them. We likewise find out only a few things about Jimi, but Benjamin channels his mannerisms and speech patterns so exactly and looks so much like him that I felt I was watching Hendrix in the role, minus the slightly less charismatic way that Benjamin performs as Jimi onstage. No guitars being lit on fire in this film, and in fact, no music licensed to them from the Hendrix Estate. When Benjamin sings, though, it sounds so like Hendrix that I had to read the credits to make sure that Hendrix himself wasn’t the one doing the singing.
The film adopts a faux documentary style, showing two characters talking to each other only to continue the conversation as voiceover as the images skip to a different part of their meeting, one in which they aren’t speaking. Also, when important people appear in the film, we get a freeze frame and their name next to their photo. This happens with managers, famous musicians, and Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, who formed the other two-thirds of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. In addition, the costumes and lens filters used in the film evoke the 60s.
With more energy and care given to its secondary characters, especially its females, this film could have been great. As it is, it’s decent, but for a more fascinating look at this period in the life of Hendrix and of rock and roll history, see the Hendrix in London Exhibit at the EMP.
Jimi: All Is By My Side was shown as the Opening Night film at the 40th Seattle International Film Festival