And here we have the opening film of the Seattle International Film Festival. Being there, I can say that I can feel that this is going to be a great year for films at the festival. The opening was a moment of Hollywood extravagances coated by the Seattle culture. The writer and director John Ridley showed up for a short Q&A which was cool even if he didn’t take comments from the audience. I gave a standing ovation when it was announced that The Egyptian Theater (an incredible theater that was closed down about a year ago) beyond being a place opened back up for the festival would also be opened up again year round if they got enough money. In short, the opening gala made for an excellent night.
But how was the opening film Jimi: All is by my Side? Well I’ll tell you, I fall in the line that passionately, powerfully believes that the film is in every way…pretty ok.
Jimi: All is by my Side captures the life of Jimi Hendrix (André Benjamin) before his performance at the Monterey Pop Festival when he was just starting to gain some recognition. We follow him as he deals with gigs, his girlfriends and his personal ideologies.
This was a film I was looking forward to the moment I found out a Hendrix biopic was coming out starring Andre 3000 (OutKast) in the lead role. To me, I thought the casting of Andre as Hendrix was a daring and brilliant move on the part of the director. The film is also written and directed by John Ridley who recently won Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the incredible 12 Years a Slave. This film was geared up to be an amazing success. Having now seen it, the film works in bits in pieces in terms of the casting, production design, dialogue and costumes but as a whole I found the film to jumbled and poorly told and even if that was storytelling that it was going for, it really does it poorly.
I will say that Andre Benjamin’s portrayal of Jimi Hendrix is just as good if not a bit better than I thought it was going to be. He flawlessly embraces and absorbs the persona of Jimi Hendrix for every scene. He perfectly executes the ramblings and movements of Hendrix when he was both starting off and later on when he was starting to gain fame. It’s an interpretation that features anger, sadness. humor and swagger with ease. Admittedly, the script doesn’t give him a lot to work off of as a very three dimensional character but in the minor scenes of humanity in the character, Andre does a decent enough job carrying that as well. Far and away, Andre steals the show and presents us with a portrayal that is truly fit for a music legend.
The cast all works well with what they are given. Imogen Poots is the other standout of the film for me as Jimi’s first girlfriend Linda who is used within the story to work as Jimi’s sort of flawed guardian angel who seems to be the only one who can see beyond his mask. Every moment which we get to focus on the relationship between the two is memorable and charming and I wouldn’t have minded seeing a few more scenes with the two conversing compared to how many rinse/repeat moments that they have with Jimi’s 2nd girlfriend Kathy, scenes that were tonally off and featuring an intent that I personally found to be dull.
The rest of cast is good too, Burn Gorman is great as Jimi’s manager Michael Jeffery and the friendship between the two was interesting to watch. The scenes are some of the worst in the film but I think Hayley Atwell delivers a solid performance as Kathy. I think the film deserves recognition for finding a way to put in famous people of the time period without it seeming jarring or out of place (cough…cough…The Butler). Mostly I think that all of the actors did a fantastic job of capturing the essence of the time period.
Speaking of which, John Ridley does a phenomenal job as an overall writer in staying true to the dialogue of the time period. In 12 Years a Slave, every line was rich and felt right out of the 1800’s south. And in All is by my Side, the film is packed with moments that perfectly present the thoughts and emotions of the mid to late 1960’s. Not adding in the actual story, John Ridley’s dialogue is entertaining. The best scene in the movie for me is when Hendrix is explaining his laid back attitude to civil rights protestors. The moment works because beyond it showcasing Benjamin’s acting talent, the scene in the lines given shows the thoughts of an era as well as the mentality of Hendrix as a whole.
The Costume and Production design should also be given credit for capturing the time period in a way that is memorable. Also quite good is the sound design which grabs every sound to come out of Jimi’s guitar with an intense crispness.
From what I’ve described, it would take something huge to make this anything less than an excellent biopic. Man oh man…what this film got wrong…it got really wrong.
The movie seems to lack a basic three act structure and instead the film seems to flash through different bits and pieces of his life before his performance at Monterey, only resembling the evolution of a story at its most simplistic format. The film works like as described by actress Haley Atwell during the Q&A, a stream of consciousness. I should mention firstly that if this is what they were going for, I respect what they were doing. That editing style really works towards the morals and values of Jimi Hendrix. Life should only be lived one moment at a time without reflection on the past or future. The format they were going for benefits the themes that the film was going for in terms of interpreting Hendrix’s lifestyle.
This is a form of editing that can work as a way to build an incredible character study (what I thought this film would do). Two of my favorite writers and directors are Joel and Ethan Coen, these are two writers who are perfect at using this storytelling to dive deep into complex stories and fascinating characters in a way that is original and brilliant. The problem All is by my Side runs into is that the film is not just trying to be a story of the lifestyle of Jimi Hendrix, the film also tries to be a genuinely focused love story as well as a rise to fame story. Not to mention, Hendrix feels like a supporting actor in his own movie. We cut to so many different characters throughout the movie that it almost feels like the movie would’ve been better off if we had a movie that revolved around the characters important to his life rather than simply himself.
And it’s not as though what the film attempts to be is done particularly well. The moments of romance between Jimi and Kathy came off as melodramatic, dull and spastic. There’s one scene where Jimi flips out at Kathy in such a way that is so unexpected from what he had seen so far from the character and so out of left field that I couldn’t help but laugh a moment that probably should have been quite moving. The rise to fame story goes nowhere that isn’t predictable. These things are improved a little by nice sounding dialogue and decent performances but when you get down to it, these are both storylines that get in the way of whatever form of storytelling Ridley was going for.
The film is two very different things, a simple, by the dozen, middle of the road biopic and a wild, eccentric character study and in the end both cancel each other for the equivalent of a story that really seems to go nowhere of importance. The performances and dialogue make you care about the characters but at its core, the heart of the film is pretty muddy.
The film is filled with great things like Ridley’s dialogue, the performances and the costume and production design as well as many of the musical sequences, but this film took a story that was already pretty weak and gave it a poor edit. Regardless of what they were trying to go for in how the film was edited, the film felt sloppy and unfinished by the end credits and that immensely takes away from what is otherwise a great film. John Ridley knows how to write dialogue but he needs a lot of work in terms of writing his own story to back it. Again ok film with cool stuff, it just doesn’t feel like a completed vision.
Release Date: 4/4/2014
Directed by: John Ridley
Screenplay by: John Ridley