The story goes that before Jimi Hendrix electrified audiences with his game-changing approach to rock ‘n roll and blues, coupled with his flamboyant, jaw-dropping guitar technique, he was just another musician trying to pay the bills on the R&B circuit. Until one day, he was spotted by Linda Keith—girlfriend of someone you might have heard of named Keith Richards—at the Cheetah Club in New York, and putting Hendrix in touch with the right people, he was quickly launched to superstardom. And it’s a good story, with a rise-to-fame narrative, famous faces and presumably, memorable songs. Yet, somehow, in Oscar winning “12 Years Slave” scribe John Ridley‘s film “All Is By My Side,” which he wrote and directed, we get very little understanding of the artistry and ambition that would see one among a number of guitarists hustling for a dollar, become one of the most influential rock ‘n roll musicians of all time.
Presented here, the early ’20s Hendrix is somewhat aimless and aloof, and can’t afford to own a guitar. But when Linda tells him to get one, he does. And when Linda tells him to meet with Chas Chandler about being his manger, he does. And when Chas says Hendrix should move to England, conquer the scene there first, and then come back to America, Jimi goes along with it. All of this happens within in the first half hour of the film, which endeavors to cover the year before Hendrix walked on stage on the Monterey Pop Festival and made history with a charismatic, literally fire fueled performance. “All Is By My Side” is the kind of movie where someone actually says, “He’s gonna be a rock star one day.” But historical fact aside, we see very little dramatically or musically to make that case.
Instead, most of the far too long, tediously paced two hour movie focuses on Hendrix’s troubled relationships with women, from dumping Linda Keith for Kathy Etchingham, and eventually ditching her for Ida. Not particularly kind and sometimes violent towards them, Hendrix isn’t the most likeable protagonist, with the implication being that he used everyone around him to get what he wanted. And indeed the biggest sticking point of the movie is Hendrix’s lack of personal agency. From the guitar in his hands to the people in his band (drummer Mitch Mitchell was decided on by a coin toss) to even his stage name and presence, these were all more or less decided by other people. But more critically, we don’t get any look at how Hendrix evolved from sideman to frontman and songwriter.
Part of this lacking element is due to the Hendrix family estate, who did not give permission for the production to use his original music. And at least early on, that’s fine, because early in his career, most of Hendrix’s repertoire was cover songs anyway. However, once the story begins to focus on his upcoming gig at Monterey, the absence of Hendrix’s key songs can’t be overlooked. “Foxy Lady”, “Can You See Me”, “The Wind Cries Mary”, and “Purple Haze” were all played at that festival, three of them now bonafide classics. But we don’t see the development of those songs, or really any songwriting on behalf of this film version of Hendrix, whose breezy “take it as it comes” lifestyle, used to justify omissions in detail, becomes less believable by the moment.
Watching “All Is By My Side,” there is a fleeting thought that perhaps Ridley is attempting to subvert the genre as a whole, and refuse to give into the instant mythologizing that usual comes with biopic territory. Because certainly, the portrait painted of Hendrix is hardly flattering or inspiring, suggesting that one of rock ‘n rolls biggest idols had people around him who deserve more acknowledgement. And it would be worth entertaining that notion, if “All Is By My Side” had any more depth. But the film is not only one dimensional when it comes to its subject, but also of the time and place where Hendrix arrived. A lanky, eccentrically dressed black man with a giant afro in an already racially tense London, the political, social and culture context that certainly would’ve given Hendrix the wrong attention is merely given lip service. One sequence of getting stopped on the street by white cops, and another featuring a conversation with a militant black activist Michael X, are as far Ridley is willing to go and he exits the latter sequence by having Hendrix cheesily declare the following platitude, “When the power of love takes over the love of power, that’s when things will change.” Right on, man.
You’ll notice we haven’t talked about the performances in the film because they can only be as good as the script. So while Andre 3000 nails the shambling charm and cadence of Hendrix, he isn’t given many other directions to go in, and coupled with the rather regrettable depiction of the artist, he’s a hard character to root for or be invested in. Performance wise, the rapper does an adequate job of approximating Hendrix’s style which would be difficult for anyone. As for the women in Hendrix’s life—played by Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell and Ruth Negga—they too are fit into a convenient narrative box only to be trotted out when the machinations of the plot need it.
Ultimately, “All Is By My Side” is somewhat trivial in nature, ticking the necessary boxes it is legally able to (Hendrix upstaging Eric Clapton after guesting at a Cream concert; Hendrix performing an amped up version of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with The Beatles in the audience), while at other times letting the seams show for the stuff they likely had to get around. One of the key components that made Hendrix a household name was the spontaneous, continually inventive nature of his playing, and a spirit open to turn on a musical dime. And that’s the energy missing from “All Is By My Side,” a Hendrix movie without the full Hendrix story, seminal Hendrix songs, all in a portrait of a man that doesn’t really feel like Hendrix at all. [D]