Blu-ray Review: Jimi: All is By My Side

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John Ridley won a richly-deserved Academy Award last year for his adapted screenplay 12 Years a Slave. Before that, he wrote and directed a strange Jimi Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All is By My Side, that made the festival rounds in 2013. It had a very limited theatrical release in 2014 and now has the potential to reach a far wider audience on Blu-ray and DVD with its January 13 home video release. Ridley made the interesting decision to focus on a single year in Hendrix’s life, 1966-67, rather than try to tell his whole story. This is the guitar god in embryonic mode, before the whole world knew his name. The entire approach casts aside the typical biopic structure in favor of a somewhat impressionistic depiction, characterized by daringly experimental visual and sonic choices. Dialogue overlaps at times, sound effects build to a crescendo before the entire soundtrack goes suddenly silent, and the camera lingers around the fringes of the action.

aib_9_08942 (380x253).jpgAt the center of the film is OutKast’s Andre Benjamin (a musician first and actor second) portraying the 24-year-old Hendrix despite being in his late-30s. Against the odds, Benjamin turns in a charmingly likable performance, capturing (for the most part) the mannerisms we’ve seen in concert and interview footage of Hendrix. With the help of Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) and new manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), Hendrix abandons the New York City R&B scene for Swinging London. Soon he is wowing audiences with his six-string innovations and jamming with the likes of Cream. We see the formation of The Jimi Hendrix Experience. Another woman enters his life, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), and manages to get on everyone’s last nerve due to her controlling nature.

The real Etchingham has condemned Ridley’s depiction of her as the victim of domestic abuse at the hand of Hendrix. She reportedly contacted the film’s producers to offer her insights, but that didn’t stop them from including a scene in which Hendrix beats her savagely with a telephone. Usually we hear about biopics softening their subject’s rough edges, but here we have a case where his unseemly traits appear to have been invented. It calls into question the level of accuracy with which Ridley paints his entire portrait of Hendrix.

aib_8_06346 (380x253).jpgEven overlooking that major discrepancy (which is hard to do), the fact remains that Jimi: All is By My Side contains not one note of Hendrix’s actual music. The producers couldn’t secure the rights to use any of his songs or actual guitar playing. Benjamin did his own singing, but besides not being an especially convincing approximation of Hendrix’s voice, we hear him very sparingly. Mostly we see Benjamin noodling around on guitar (the parts were played by session guitarist Waddy Wachtel). In other words, don’t look here for any of Hendrix’s revolutionary musicianship. Separating Hendrix from his art makes for a strangely flat movie that is ultimately difficult to recommend as anything more than a curiosity.

aib_9_08733 (380x253).jpgXLrator Media’s Blu-ray presentation is quite good. Tim Fleming’s cinematography does nothing to evoke the period (it has a cut-rate, made-for-cable look), but the transfer itself presents no problems. Even better is the DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix. Despite the lack of authentic Hendrix music, the music is presented with seriously robust low end. Recreations, however brief, of The Experience’s three-piece rock assault reverberate very pleasingly. Aforementioned experimental sound effects create an intentionally disoriented effect at times, making Jimi: All is By My Side a consistently interesting listening experience.

Beside a theatrical trailer, the only special feature is a four-minute featurette with guitarist Wachtel. A John Ridley commentary track could’ve been potentially illuminating, but alas we must go without. Hendrix fans will be understandably curious about Jimi: All is By My Side, but given its problems, most will end up wishing they had spent the two hours revisiting one of the numerous excellent concert documentaries available.

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Chaz Lipp writes for The Morton Report.

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