Monday, September 8, 2014

Jimi: All Is By My Side

This is a film with multiple problems serious enough that the couple of very good things it has going for it stand little chance of compensating. As written and directed by 12 Years A Slave scribe John Ridley, the narrative sets off down the familiar musical biopic lane: musician discovered; gains success; deals with distractions and behaves badly; and that's it.. Perhaps because the production was denied the use of Hendrix's music by his estate (holding out for full control of the production), the story ends in mid-1967, with Jimi and his Experience trooping off to Monterey and international fame.

So the idea is that this is the backstory, how 1969's highest-paid rock musician and generally-acknowledged greatest guitar hero ever, got that way. But because of the aforementioned legal issues, we get nothing at all of the first album – the Experience go into the studio; Jimi's girlfriend interrupts and is dismissed; cut to post-session recriminations – nor any sense of how those first three singles made him a star in England beyond the musical cognoscenti.

Perhaps it is more interesting to concentrate on the man than the music. In this case, no. He loves to play, sure, but he does not appear driven by it, content to back up Curtis Knight to a tiny and indifferent audience. Aside from an easy-going charm, his character remains rather blanked-out by this lack of drive. What does he want? If he could do it his way, he'd play his own music, blues-inspired, but not slavishly-indebted as was the mode. But he needs to be prodded all the way, to leave the Cheetah Club, to unstraighten his hair, to take a manager, to start singing, to move to England, and he is quite content to go with the flow.

There are so many other things missing from this film aside from discernible character and the actual music – where, for example is the fascination with studio trickery already in evidence on the first album? Where are the roots of the drug infatuation that would kill him (beyond a subdued and irrelevant first acid trip)? What makes him so recalcitrant as to fuck up a northern England gig? And whence his unheralded, violent rage at girlfriend Kathy (Hayley Atwell)? And then there's race: he gets introduced to a smiling, slightly sinister Michael X (Adrian Lester) and scheming homunculus Ida (Ruth Negga) who want to recruit him as a symbol for black Britain, but for Jimi, blithely, as far as his audience is concerned, "they're all my people". He gets hassled once by police, but the implication is as much because he is a hippy as because he is black. He doesn't want to talk about it afterwards; nor does the film.

Having written himself this rather bland material, Ridley directs with a certain amount of desperation, resorting to jump cuts, overlapping dialogue, and audio drop-outs that play as irritating stylistic tics more than formal elucidations of a theme, never mind a creative vision. A couple of period-footage montages are cute but obtrusive – production design is fine, as is camerawork, but only in a recreated TV interview are we ever encouraged to believe we're watching a time capsule rather than a reenactment.

Compensations for all this come from some of the supporting cast. Several one-scene turns fail embarrassingly (Ashley Charles as a whiney Keith Richard; Burn Gorman as a parody East-End manager), but Andrew Buckley as Chas Chandler, Animals bassist turned manager, is a consistently appealing presence; and Imogen Poots more or less steals the film, irresistible as Linda Keith (Richard's girlfriend), who discovers Jimi in the first place. Another happy consolation is that, despite a woefully underwritten role, and that late and unexpected turn towards violence, André Benjamin as Hendrix is charismatic and thoughtful enough to hold our attention, conveying a personality perhaps not overloaded with brains, given to hippy-dippy prophecies about the coming of space brothers, not very interested in talking to anyone unless it's about Bob Dylan or Howling Wolf, but also convincingly displaying, as Keith has it almost as the film's final line, the "annoying habit of occasionally being simply profound".

The really fantastically good thing about this film however, is one that emerges all too seldom: those brief moments when, music rights permitting, Jimi is allowed to let loose with a band (as opposed to noodling in the corner of a pub, say). This only happens three or four times, but it is here that the movie gets things dead right (thanks to top-notch session musicians), and the music takes your breath away, be he ripping up a Howlin' Wolf tune with Cream (Clapton leaves the stage in a justifiable combination of indignation and humility); or, especially, the blistering Sgt Pepper with which Hendrix opens that album's release party, to the drop-jawed amazement of all present. These moments are so good, and so convincing of the original's genius, that one could wish that the film had simply taken a more fictional approach as a way round the music rights issues, allowing space for more of this kind of stuff. As it is, while serviceable but uninspired dramatic narrative scenes drag on in between these brief musical high points, the overwhelming feeling is that everyone should just shut up and let him play his guitar.

d/sc John Ridley p Danny Bramson, Anthony Burns, Jeff Culotta, Brandon Freeman, Tristan Lynch, Sean McKittrick, Nigel Thomas ph Tim Fleming ed Hank Gorwin, Chris Gill pd Paul Cross m Danny Bramson, Waddy Wachtel cast André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Andrew Buckley, Burn Gorman, Ruth Negga, Tom Dunlea, Oliver Bennett

(2013, UK/Ire/USA, 118m)
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