*** (out of four)
Alluring and elusive, “Jimi: All is By My Side” refuses to spell everything out. It’s not a musical biopic that tracks an artist’s career from beginning to end and asks the actor (in this case, Outkast’s Andre Benjamin) to play ages 16 to 60. (Looking at you, “Jersey Boys.”) Instead, writer/director John Ridley (Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave”) seeks Jimi Hendrix’s woozy, laid-back vibe, tossed with a fondness for spontaneous inspiration and the aural and emotional fireworks that sometimes result.
In what might be the part he was born to play (not including human transporter for funky space rap), Benjamin stars as the titular guitar legend, seen only from late-1966 to mid-‘67 as Hendrix begins making a name for himself in London. Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots, everywhere this year) motivates Hendrix, and he hires The Animals’ bassist Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley) as his manager. Hendrix takes life as it comes (particularly music and women), shacking up with Kathy (Hayley Atwell) until the wind pushes him in another direction. Throughout, Ridley includes relevant imagery and one extended conversation on race, only to have his subject separate himself from it. “You could be a symbol,” he’s told by a much-talk, little-action black activist emphasizing the difference between the perception of white blues players and black blues players. Says Hendrix: “I’m just playing my guitar.”
There are a few moments I hope really happened this way: Eric Clapton (Danny McColgan) exclaims, “Is he really that [bleeping] good?” after Hendrix asks to join Cream on stage and subsequently wails. Keith Richards (Ashley Charles) expresses jealousy for the time Linda’s spending with her new favorite musician, who records with the lights off and chooses a drummer with a coin flip. With Benjamin’s relaxed performance (impressively playing mid-20s in his late-30s) that still allows for his character’s periodic violent outbursts, Hendrix is an effortless enigma, hiding nothing while not revealing all.
As such, many will want more from this slow, casual story—more biographical details, more musical development, more rising action and more songs. That’s fair. But it’s not that kind of movie. In Ridley’s eyes, Hendrix didn’t want to look too far backward or forward and didn’t want to talk much at all. (When he innocently defends his appearance by asking, “Have you ever met a real pimp?” I imagined Benjamin’s Outkast partner, Big Boi, asking the same question with a much different cadence.) He wanted to groove, baby, and the movie floats there with him.
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