JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE – Blu-ray review

I don’t think I’m unique in saying that when it comes to biopics of music icons I’m wanting two things, really:  insight into their lives, and a full complement of music to make me remember and appreciate their talents. I want to walk away from the movie feeling that I know them even better now, and so blown away again by the music that it sticks with me for days.

I’m not sure either happens with “Jimi:  All Is by My Side,” a 2013 biopic from John Ridley (“12 Years a Slave”) that deals with only a small portion of Hendrix’ brief life:  from the night that Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richard’s girlfriend, Linda Keith, “discovered” him playing at the Cheetah Club in New York, until his star-turn onstage at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival a year later.

Ridley manages to explain, somewhat, how Hendrix got from New York to London to Monterrey, as well as detailing how the Jimi Hendrix Experience was formed with guitarist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell.  But mostly Ridley chooses to dramatize the relationships between Hendrix, Linda, girlfriend Kathy Etchingham, and manager Chas Chandler (who left the Animals to work with talent behind the scenes). All of that is fleshed out well enough, while Ridley’s direction favors scenes so leisurely paced that you often find yourself wishing for more biographical information or music, rather than yet another “character moment.” And the way the characters are played, you can’t help but wonder if they’re accurately depicted.

Was Hendrix really the sometimes inarticulate, sometimes soft-spoken philosopher that he comes across as in this 118-minute film? Was he really that pliable when it came to doing what others suggested, blowing with the wind when it came to tough decisions or relationship —so laid back that you wonder how he ever managed the drive to create the songs that he did?

After watching “Jimi: All Is by My Side,” I honestly don’t know. Aside from a few mentions and phone calls to his father, we get no background information on Al Hendrix and the role he played in supporting his son’s early interest in music. In fact, their relationship almost seems more estranged than it was in reality. And on the other end, there’s no hint of how big Jimi’s career was, with no mention of Woodstock, the milestones he logged, the albums and songs that brought him fame, or any hint of how he died on September 18, 1970 at the young age of 27. When Hendrix choked on his own vomit while high on barbiturates, he became the first of three drug-related deaths of 27-year-old rock icons—followed by Janis Joplin on October 4, 1970, and Jim Morrison on July 3, 1971—all victims of the ‘60s.

But those are big-picture concerns. Ridley works with a smaller stage, in part because the Hendrix Estate wouldn’t grant permission for any of Hendrix’ songs to be used. That means you don’t get to hear “Hey Joe,” “Purple Haze,” “The Wind Cries Mary,” “Crosstown Traffic,” “Voodoo Child,” “All Along the Watchtower,” or any other Hendrix gems. Bummer? Of course.

What you get is some decent guitar work that may or may not be from rapper André Benjamin—who does a commendable job playing Hendrix, even if Ridley wants him played like a bit of a mope. Imogen Poots is captivating as Keith, but Atwell isn’t far behind in her portrayal of Etchingham, who objected to the film’s portrayal of Hendrix as a “dimwitted” violent man who beat her on several occasions. Not true, says the real Etchingham, who writes in a review on her own website, “Instead of showing Jimi touring the UK and Europe, writing and performing the most innovative music of the century we are shown scenes of banal meanderings, fictitious gratuitous violence and fictitious mental breakdowns and overdoses.”

Ridley, who also wrote the screenplay, often falls short in his depiction of major events in Hendrix’ life. When Jimi and the Experience improvised an electric rendition of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” at London’s Saville Theatre just three days after The Beatles’ album was released, and with Paul and George in attendance, we THINK the two Beatles’ liked it, but aren’t sure. Certainly, the reaction isn’t as big as described in John McDermott’s biography, Hendrix: Setting the Record Straight, in which McCartney was quoted as saying, “It’s a pretty major compliment in anyone’s book. I put that down as one of the great honors of my career.” You don’t get that from the film treatment.

Hendrix raised the ante for lead guitar players. After him, everyone had to up their game. But that aspect seems overblown in the film.  When Jimi’s manager gets him a chance to jam with Cream, after just a few guitar riffs Eric Clapton rushes off the stage in embarrassment, feeling dwarfed by such a major talent. Really? Cream fans will find that one hard to believe, with no biographer needed to set the record straight.

To me, the range of material and scenic construction seem better suited for the stage than the big screen, given the approach that Ridley takes and the heavy emphasis on two-person drama. Fans will wish for more club scenes and performances, more MUSIC, and more information about Hendrix’ life. I walked away from it thinking that while “Jimi” was a decent enough film to watch, it gave me comparatively little insight into Hendrix and his music, and not nearly enough of the latter.

As Etchingham writes, “I felt that I wasn’t watching an interpretation of the events from the time, but rather a stiff and poorly depicted mash-up of events described in my book, sprinkled over Ridley’s racially driven fictional theme” with “wooden dialogue and disjointed editing.” I’d have to agree. But with nothing personal at stake, I think her 2 out of 10 rating is just a TAD harsh. If you don’t know anything about Hendrix and just approach this like any other biopic, it’s probably a 6, unless you’re put off by an abrupt an unfulfilling ending. If you’re a fan, it’s more of a 5.

“Jimi: All Is by My Side” is rated R for language including sexual references and some drug content.

This film is presented in a letterboxed 1.77:1 aspect ratio, and despite the predominance of dimly lit interior scenes there’s plenty of edge detail and stage lighting, for the most part, doesn’t muck things up. Colors are ’60s vibrant, with Carnaby Street splashed all over the place. Reds and oranges are particularly pop-out.

The featured audio is an English DTS-HD 5.1 MA, and it’s powerful enough to accommodate the guitar riffs and amplifier feedback. Club scenes are especially full-bodied in their tone, with solid bass and just as vibrant mid-tones and treble. Kind of makes you wish there was more music, because there’s really a surprising amount of dialogue for a biopic of this nature. Subtitles are in English SDH.

There are no bonus features.

Bottom line:
I’ve seen worse musical biopics, but I’ve also seen better. Because Ridley chose to focus on the year prior to Hendrix’ rocket to fame took off, and because he was prohibited from using music from Hendrix’ albums, he chose to focus on relationship drama—and it all feels just a little too soapy, a little too choppy, and way too staged