[Editor’s Note: This post is presented in partnership with Time Warner Cable Movies On Demand in support of Indie Film Month. Today’s pick “Jimi: All Is by My Side” is available now On Demand. This interview was originally published last fall.]
John Ridley has been honing his craft for years, apprenticing with John Wells on “Third Watch,” through multiple movie scripts (“U-Turn,” “Red Tails”) and television series (“Barbershop,” “Platinum”) to his first feature “Cold Around the Heart.” He wrote the Oscar-winning script for “12 Years a Slave” as well as his sophomore directing effort, Jimi Hendrix slice-of-life “All Is by My Side,” now available to view on video on demand platforms.
The Jimi Hendrix estate has been holding up a proper biopic for decades. But one night screenwriter John Ridley (who won the Oscar for his screen adaptation of Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave”), trolled the internet and found some splendid Hendrix covers from early in his career in London. Suddenly he saw a way to take a slice of life of the famed guitarist. And following years of directing in television for John Wells and others, Ridley got the project financed as his second feature directing gig. “Jimi: All Is By My Side” has played well on the festival circuit — I interviewed Ridley a year ago in Toronto– and finally opened Friday to strong reviews. (The full interview, which includes more background behind “12 Years a Slave,” is here.)
I always knew you were a good writer with range. I didn’t know you were a good director.
I didn’t know I was a good director. I had done a film a long time ago called “Cold Around the Heart.” Nobody saw it and it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. Directing under the best of circumstances is never easy but it was a learning experience for me. But because I wrote in television, you’re in production every single week. You get to learn about working with actors and budgets and as we sat down, working with John Wells, he was a guy where when you’re doing an episode with him, and I worked on the show “Third Watch” he was producing for a long time, you’re in charge of that week’s production, with what you wrote. You ran the show.
Directing television is different than a feature because they come in on a weekly basis. You would work very intimately with them and have conversations about how you saw the script and what they plan to do with it. You would be involved with the casting of the weekly cast, and the post-production and editing. You have the network standing with you, but you’re in charge.
That was a real education so in that space I learned a lot on the technical side. Then going off writing and producing shows, I did a show the Coppolas were producing that actually shot and went into production here in Toronto and that show I ended up directing some episodes, and you are working with a unit that is essentially yours and they are there for you and that experience is an exceptionally positive one.
You come out of that believing “I can do this, I know I can do it,” but I know the circumstances where I can execute at my highest level. With “All Is By My Side,” it was about setting it up start to finish.
It’s been on the rocks for decades.
People like Paul Greengrass, the Hughes brothers, these guys have track records and they couldn’t convince the estate that they had a story or a way in or a way to do it that was worthy of their time and intention.
This came from about seven years ago, and I consider myself a Hendrix fan. I was up late one night writing and I was going through the internet and I was looking up old rarities of Jimi’s music. People would post music tracks, and this was still before people, when you post things, they take them down right away. I was just typing in “Hendrix rarities,” and a track in particular came up and I wasn’t really paying attention to it. It was these four busted studio tapes where he would stop and start, and they were okay. But he went in that fifth take and he pushed through that same spot, and it was almost the same spot where he broke down every time. He got to a point — and Jimi Hendrix is one of the most interpretive, emotive artists that ever played the guitar — where he started playing this track that is more emotional and has more depth, with more reach and more range, than anything I’d heard from him in the past.
The title was “Sending My Love to Linda” and I said, ‘who’s Linda?’ This guy was clearly working something out and writing for someone, and I needed to find out as much as I could. I started reading and doing research. In some places she was mentioned very little, in other places a bit more, in some places they had a little bit about his London years. In other places they would talk more about jazz or what he did with Eric Clapton onstage, but it was all kind of bits and pieces.
I really believed there was a story here that has its own time and space that is finite. Rather than trying to fit 27 years into two hours, it’s taking two hours and looking at one year. I got to the end of it and said “this is a story and if I can tell it with music that is new, historically accurate and true and for people like me who consider themselves Hendrix fans, that sense for me when I discovered this story, that sense of excitement and curiosity…”
Whose music is it?
It is Buddy Walker, Buddy Guy, T Bone Walker, it is the Beatles, all this music that Jimi played and that inspired him but that a lot of people don’t know he was involved in. If you go online and look at the top downloads on iTunes, it’d be like “All Along the Watchtower” and “The National Anthem.” They were covers but Jimi says, “you should be able to take a song like ‘Auld Lang Syne’ that people have heard a million times and play it in a new way.” If you listen to the Live at the Fillmore East album, he kicks off playing “Auld Lang Syne” and it’s New Year’s Eve and Jimi plays it in a way that is so stunning. There was no easy way to slip that in but it’s such an amazing interpretive piece.
We got this guy Waddy Wachtel, who’s played with everybody. We wanted to make it our own. To try and chase Jimi Hendrix, you’re never going to get there. But if we can create our own sound and take historically accurate songs and marry them with an artist like Andre Benjamin, what we can do is show people something that is new and our own rather than trying to chase performances. Andre works so hard. There’s a reason Andre is a star. He’s got the charisma to begin with but he worked so hard to create a musically and emotionally honest version of Jimi rather than a Vegas lounge act, and that was very important to us.
He flew out to Los Angeles, spent six months with me, a guitar coach and a vocal coach. Andre is in great shape but lost about 20 pounds because Jimi at that time period was just emaciated. Andre looks great, he had just gotten himself down to where Jimi was at that time period because they weren’t eating. Andre wasn’t going to do it if he couldn’t make the effort. I said, “if you’re coming out for six months, you’ve got me for six months, I’m not working on anything else, I’m with you.”
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