"Jimi: All is by My Side," a new film about Jimi Hendrix, opens Friday amid a purple haze of its own making.
Unlike standard musicians biopics, the movie takes place just before the subject became famous – in this case, 1966 and 1967, with Hendrix on the verge of blazing his way into rock history at the Monterey Pop Festival (the movie's website touts the story of "a man growing up, falling in love and becoming Jimi"). Hendrix-penned classics like “Foxy Lady” and “Little Wing” are nowhere to be heard in the flick.
The film's star, Andre Benjamin, long ago proved himself a charismatic figure as Outkast's Andre 3000 – but he’s a largely untested actor who, at 39, is already dozen years older than Hendrix when the guitar great tragically joined the "27 club" in 1970. Meanwhile, “All is by My Side," goes up against fresh memories of Chadwick Boseman's just-give-him-the-Oscar-now performance as James Brown in the somewhat more conventional biopic "Get on Up."
But if the Jimi Hendrix experience has taught us anything, it's to expect magic (especially “Spanish Castle Magic”).
The Hendrix story – a hardscrabble youth in Seattle, a stint in the Army and early artistic failures – offers an opportunity to inspire, even if the guitar god was only human. The movie focuses on Hendrix’ career-changing move to London, where he wowed established contemporaries like Eric Clapton, the Animals and the Rolling Stones, all British performers steeped in the American Blues.
He also impressed the Beatles by playing his proto-metal version of the title track of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” band on stage just three days after the seminal album’s release.
Like the Beatles, Hendrix had to leave his home country to get some traction. “Backbeat,” the best semi-fictionalized cinematic depiction of the Beatles’ story, succeeded by, like “All is by My Side,” sticking to a defined, lesser known but pivotal period in the act’s history. The 1994 film didn't need a catalogue of Lennon-McCartney hits to depict the group’s rise through the gritty clubs of Hamburg, Germany.
Hendrix, as much an American original as the version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” he wailed through at Woodstock, eventually achieved acclaim at home and around the world. But the details of his rise are largely a mystery to latter-day fans who know him primarily through the music that poured out during his brief career and leaked onto albums for years after his death.
Check out the trailer as “All is by My Side” writer and director John Ridley, who won the Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for “12 Year a Slave,” vies to give generations of moviegoers a new kind of Jimi Hendrix experience.
Jere Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.