Last weekend screenwriter John Ridley won an Academy Award for his astonishing work on 12 Years A Slave. He follows that achievement this week with a more under-the-radar film of his premiering at South by Southwest: Jimi: All Is by My Side. This Jimi Hendrix bio marks his second directorial effort, but this film will lead you to believe he's a seasoned pro behind the camera.
Most bio movies focused on musicians often feel more like a series of cliff notes than a real movie. Most of them hit the beats you expect -- troubled childhood, the big break, relationship issues, and the comeback -- but Ridley wisely only chooses one of those stories to focus on: Hendrix's big break.
Hendrix (Andre Benjamin) is discovered at the start of the film by model Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). Keith Richard's ex-girlfriend believes in Jimi from the beginning and pushes the reluctant musician to reach his fullest potential. The Hendrix portrayed in the film is somewhat of a contradiction: alive and in control on the stage, but unsure of himself and uneasy when he doesn't have a guitar in his hand. It's a dichotomy that Ridley expresses exceedingly well. Hendrix doesn't open up much in the film, but Ridley and Bejamin's performance make us understand this often cryptic, charming, and harmful figure.
What's also refreshing about Ridley's approach is that the movie never excuses Hendrix's personal problems because of his ambition. Far too often filmmakers and screenwriters give their creative subjects a pass because they're so busy glamorizing their subject. Ridley never lets Hendrix's actions slide. He's never judging the musician, but rather presents a complex character study without any glorification or demonization.
There's been question over how accurate Ridley's depiction of Hendrix is. In the film he has an abusive relationship with Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), and the real life Kathy has claimed Ridley's portrayal is untrue. Whether Ridley took too many liberties with Hendrix's life is secondary to the fact he made a very good film.
This is a warts and all bio film, which should always be the case. The only character you come away loving is Linda Keith. She's hip, cool, and passionate. If that's how the real life Keith was, then Imogen Poots has done a fantastic job bringing her to life. It's easy to see why Keith was so popular based on Poots' performance.
The only real flaw with Jimi: All Is By My Side is that Poots isn't in it enough. She's a major part of the first act, but after Hendrix and her have a falling out, she becomes more of a spectator on the sideline. If Hendrix is the intellectual side of this picture, then Keith is the emotional side, which the film could use more of. It's a performance so good you simply want more of it.
What Ridley's film has plenty of is smart, unexpected choices. There's a scene where Jimi has a phone call with his dad that says everything we need to know about his childhood. It's just good writing reinforced by powerful performances and observational direction.