Women who grew up in the ’80s share a collective rite of passage involving teenage guys playing them Prince records as a cliché seduction technique. (Back then, there was no more obvious request for the panties than “Do Me Baby.”) Prince was a totem for sex. Jimi Hendrix has long been a similar telltale totem. A poster of the guitar god on a Black student’s dorm room wall says you’ve just stepped into the realm of a budding bohemian. Enter at your own risk.
An OutKast poster in the ’90s might’ve told you the same thing, and so it’s fitting that André 3000 got tapped for the title role in the new Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side. (Q-Tip was pegged to play him once upon a time, and aesthetically, that makes just as much sense.) Set in London during 1966 and ’67, the movie has its first U.S. screening at the SXSW festival Wednesday night at the Paramount Theatre.
Written and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley (12 Years a Slave), the film tracks the young guitarist from his sideman days as Jimmy James to the Monterey Pop Festival performance that set his star status in stone. Thing is, we don’t get to hear the Monterey show (where he famously set his guitar on fire), or the Jimi Hendrix Experience recording their debut disc Are You Experienced, or any other Hendrix music. The Hendrix estate denied the use of any songs from his catalog.
So from the outset, All Is by My Side is handicapped from being anything like Hendrix’s own Ray. One day Hendrix will get the full-blown Hollywood treatment he deserves, one like the forthcoming Get On Up immortalizing James Brown this August. Instead, All Is by My Side has an indie vibe reminiscent of Basquiat, the 1996 biopic of that other bohemian Black icon, painter Jean-Michel Basquiat. But I’m not afraid to say that André Benjamin doesn’t handicap the film at all. Clearly Hendrix is a kindred spirit for the OutKast MC, who masters the late guitarist’s idiosyncratic vocal inflections and commands the role in a way that actor Wood Harris didn’t quite reach in the 2000 Showtime movie, Hendrix.
All Is by My Side is essentially a love story—between Hendrix, the girl who “discovers” him (Linda Keith, ex-gf of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, played here by Imogen Poots) and, later, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a scenester of Swinging London. Actress Ruth Negga (who plays Raina, the “girl in the flower dress,” on ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) adds the Black hippie/Black Power perspective as Ida, a part that seems to be modeled after Hendrix girlfriend Betty Mabry.
More than any other figure in rock history, it seems that White folks have their Jimi Hendrix and the Black community has theirs. The era when Hendrix formed the Band of Gypsys (an all-Black power trio) usually gets more favor with people of color than his Experience period (the all-White band he recorded all his studio albums with). As sketched by an African-American screenwriter, the Hendrix of All Is by My Side is true to the naïvely colorblind side of the man. Though he beds two English women without any onscreen thought to their race—in 1966 no less—the times still bleed through.
Walking through the London streets with Etchingham, Hendrix gets accosted by British bobbies (the cops), who ostensibly harass him for the vintage military jacket he sports. Of course the real problem, even in Swinging London, is being Black and walking hand-in-hand with a redhead without a care in the world. In another scene, the Betty Mabry stand-in brings Hendrix by her weed-selling revolutionary boyfriend to smoke—an excuse for dueling ideologies on race.
Despite the prohibition of actual Hendrix tunes, the film still manages to showcase the singer stealing thunder from the Beatles, performing “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in their face days after the record’s release. (True story. Jimi Hendrix and the Experience taught themselves the song backstage just by listening to the record.) He also jams on some Muddy Waters blues early on, and again, André 3000 keeps things credible with actual fretwork (reportedly the result of intensive, daily six-hour practice).
As a primer for the true Jimi Hendrix experience, All Is by My Side succeeds in hitting the beats that defined his early career, before he became perhaps the most influential electric guitarist of all time. But as a musical biopic, it’s got more in common with the creative Bob Dylan film biography I’m Not There than the standard-setting Ray.
Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have Bruises, There’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.