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A Few Impressions

Jimi Hendrix, Behind the Music

His new biopic succeeds, despite lacking any actual Jimi Hendrix songs.

by James Franco
03 October 2014, 5:00am

André 3000 as Jimi Hendrix. Photo courtesy of Darko Entertainment

There’s a new film out about Jimi Hendrix, written by the guy who adapted Twelve Years a Slave from the Solomon Northup memoir. But you wouldn’t know by the title, Jimi: All Is by My Side. I was a huge Hendrix fan in high school, listening to the albums on repeat at my friend Ken’s (the Monterey Pop Festival recording was our favorite), and still can’t quite figure the title out. But maybe this is supposed to be an extreme insider’s take on Jimi.

The film uses strange, superimposed titles to introduce characters in a story that otherwise stays firmly ensconced in its diegetic era of the rising flower children. The titles feel like they belong in a documentary, and the performances, especially André Benjamin (Outkast’s André 3000) as Jimi, are strong and convincing enough to be mistaken as nonfiction. But the lighting and production design are stylized to the point of purple-haze dreaminess. While the world is evoked with enough balance between realistic acting and hazed atmosphere to capture the spirit of the greatest gypsy guitar-playing mystic legend to ever live, the filmmakers fall in and out of some of the pitfalls that are present when making a biopic—especially when making a biopic about an artist when the production doesn’t have the rights to the art. That’s the elephant in this room, right? They couldn’t get the rights to Jimi’s music.

It’s a shame, because this film was certainly deserving of the music. Benjamin only plays a handful of songs that are recognizable, e.g., when Jimi played “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in London with half of the Beatles in attendance. Like the movie about Francis Bacon that didn’t use any of his actual paintings, or the same thing with Jean-Michel Basquiat, and even Jackson Pollock (in the Ed Harris take), it could be argued that the art was replicated sufficiently in their respective movies to keep the skein of the narrative intact without too many distracting omissions.

The Jimi movie works on the level of performance: All of these actors and films deliver the men behind the artists. But what does it mean to not have their art represented? Especially when the art is as recognizable as Jimi Hendrix songs? It’s one thing to replicate a Jackson Pollock drip painting (which Ed Harris does very, very well—coincidentally, there is the bottom half of one in the Hendrix movie), and it’s another thing to play at a Jimi Hendrix instrumental style. In the former we accept the drip painting as at least a representation of the original, and even if we are Pollock specialists and know that the movie version isn’t exactly right, we go with it, just like we go with the idea of talking monkeys if the world around them supports the fantasy. But when in scene after scene we hear songs that almost sound like Jimi, but never break into full-blown Jimi songs, we keep waiting, and waiting, and waiting.

But there is something interesting about the way this film deals with its handcuffs. Instead of the conventional artist biopic that gives us a bunch of everything that we already know, we get an approach that seemingly conjures up the secret Jimi, the authentic Jimi, the Jimi behind the music. The first third of the movie has Imogen Poots’s character (she plays Linda Keith, the woman who discovered Jimi and was also Keith Richards’s girlfriend) as the lead; Jimi hardly talks while she guides him away from playing backup in Greenwich Village to leading his own band in London. There, like Lana Del Rey four decades later, he eventually broke out. This approach allows the audience to gradually get closer to Jimi in the same way—and at the same time—that Imogen’s character gets to know him. She is the early motor for the film, and an excellent and intriguing one, as she is a woman connected to two musical geniuses but not a musician herself. (It's worth noting that Kathy Etchingham, an Australian girlfriend of Hendrix's who is depicted as enduring a brutal beating at his hands in the movie, has disputed its accuracy.)

Once in London, Jimi starts to take over as the narrative motor, dating around and establishing his stage presence. Throughout this section of the film, we hear him play but never sing. André 3000 is so good at Jimi’s mannerisms, and voice, and the psychology underneath the surface, that we believe it’s Jimi without hearing the actual songs. It’s just not the Jimi we expect. The lack of Hendrix songs actually adds to the authenticity by cutting down on the Hollywood approach of inserting obvious songs in convenient places, and instead gives the impression that we are watching things as they really happened because Jimi wasn’t playing his most well-known hits from the beginning.

The climax comes when Jimi actually sings, which is a little strange because he wasn’t known for his singing, and is said to have hated his own voice. But in this movie, because the audience has been waiting for it the entire film, his singing voice is a welcome crescendo that finally fulfills the expectation set at the beginning and deferred for so long. I see now that it was the final piece that we were waiting for, the last test for André 3000 and the film to pass: He looks and talks like Jimi, he dresses like Jimi, he understands Jimi’s mind, but will he sing like Jimi? We don’t care if he can play guitar like Jimi, because we wouldn’t know if he’s actually playing or not, but the singing is where we can actually judge, and when he does sing, and succeeds, so late in the film, we retroactively ask: Would it have been better if we had heard it earlier? No, not in this film. This film is about the man behind the music. If you want the famous songs, you can go buy the records.

Previously: Watch James Franco's Short Film, 'Goat Boy'