I was born in 1982, so, obviously, I never had a chance to buy a Jimi Hendrix album, let alone see him perform in person. I've never e ven seen any footage of him giving interviews—just the onstage concert clips, which are extraordinary. The ways he'd transform on those stages, becoming something animalistic and possessed.
But I have had the good fortune to meet André Benjamin, and sit down with him for an interview back when the Idlewild soundtrack was released in 2006. I've also been a big fan of Andre's two-man rap crew OutKast. ATLiens, all days, everyday.
But that wasn't Andre 3000 I watched on Austin's Paramount Theatre's big screen last night, at the U.S. premiere of the new Jimi Hendrix biopic JIMI: All Is By My Side. As far anyone in that venue knew, that was Hendrix. Benjamin speaks in this low-volume, quick-tongued manner. He makes every sentence sound like it's flowing out of his mouth, down a stream of coolness. During the scenes where Benjamin's Hendrix is jamming with his guitar, the rapper-turned-actor looks just as immersed in the riffs as Hendrix in any of those videos you can watch on YouTube of the iconic guitarist killing it back in the '60s.
Written and directed by John Ridley, who just won an Academy Award for writing Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave, JIMI is home to the best acting André Benjamin has ever done, and might ever do. It's a subtle, confident performance. He seems to be even kelled but that's undercut by a nervy disposition that hints at an explosiveness Hendrix is struggling to keep contained. And when that darker, violent side comes out, it's shocking. Ridley isn't an apologist for Hendrix, writing JIMI's version of the man as a tremendously talented artist who's sadly aloof to his specialness and his many flaws. He's abusive towards women, prone to philandering, and no stranger to drugs, but by the end of JIMI, he's just as likable as he was at film's beginning. Benjamin finds quiet methods to contrast against Hendrix's destructive tendencies.
That's driven, no doubt, by Ridley's smart decision to focus more on the two loves in Hendrix's life other than music: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) and Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell). JIMI sticks to the year before Hendrix officially blew up, stretching from the summer of 1966, when he was a back-up guitarist for a nightclub blues act, to June 1967, when he and the Jimi Hendrix Experience covered The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" at the Saville Theater, in London, in front of the Fab Four. Much of Ridley's choice to hinge the story less on Hendrix's music comes from the fact that the rocker's estate wouldn't hand over the rights to Hendrix's original music, but that turns out to be a benefit to JIMI.
There are no stale, cookie-cutter biopic vibes. Ridley locks into how Hendrix's gifts and faults simultaneously affected his closest, most intimate relationships, how they kept his mutual love with Linda Keith—with Richards' girlfriend and the woman who discovered Hendrix and spearheaded his career—an unspoken and untapped one, and how they manifested into bursts of rage towards Kathey Etchingham, his longtime and long-suffering girlfriend.
A veteran writer in Hollywood, Ridley is now in heavy rotation thanks to 12 Years a Slave, and JIMI's script is also a strong feat. The film's direction, though, is its biggest eye-opener. Along with his editing team, Ridley, a first-time director, tells a linear story with a lyrical force, connecting scenes with dreamlike cross-cutting and routinely muting all of the sound to show the characters interacting without words. Not too much, though, to not take away from JIMI's trio of knockout performances or miss out on showcasing André Benjamin's vocal cadence and vocal chops whenever Hendrix sings on stage. As an ode to the actor's strength in that latter department, Ridley spends the film's closing credits on just André Benjamin, a guitar, a chair, and an all-white background giving an upbeat, stand-up-and-clap acoustic show.
After last night's SXSW screening, John Ridley and actress Imogen Poots answered some questions, but it was Ridley's emotional and forthcoming answers that stood out.
Here are some highlights:
On casting André Benjamin
"There was a point where I'd written the script and I'd worked on it for a while, and I thought, believed, and hoped that I could direct. My agent and I were musing on the film, and he said, 'OK, if you're gonna do this, who do you want to play Jimi?' And I said, 'I don't know," and he looked at me and said, 'That's not good enough. If you're gonna do this, you really need to think about this.'"
"At some point it came to me that André could do it. He has the physicality, he's a musician, so he might be good. I thought that had been clever on my part, but it turned out that many people had been after him to play Jimi Hendrix before me. I wasn't the first. I had a mutual friend fly me down to Atlanta and set up a meeting for me and André. When I sat down with him, I was struck by his humility, his curiosity, his desire to think and be. I asked him what he was going to do next, and he said, 'I don't know, I think I'm gonna go overseas and learn how to weave rugs.' [Laughs.] I thought that was weird, but he said he wanted to learn rugging and how do it himself. I loved that. That's the kind of person I wanted to play this part."
On getting such strong performances from his cast
"I was very fortunate very early in my career to work with Francis Ford Coppola. By the way, if you watch this film [JIMI], go watch Coppola's The Rain People to see that where I got this from. But Francis said to me, 'It's not how much rehearsing you do, it's how many glasses of wine you and your actors drink with each other.' That's what he did on The Conversation, that's what he did on The Godfather, that's what he did on The Rain People. That's what makes the difference. Imogen, Andre, Hayley, and I went out for many dinners together, and drank a lot of wine together."
On turning his inability to use Hendrix's original music into an advantage
"Everyone knows that when you're dealing with a story like this, where there's personal property involved, it's always difficult. People are put in charge of estates for a reason. They have a right to execute as they see fit. People who are way more accomplished than I, like Paul Greengrass and the Hughes Brothers, they tried to get those rights in the past, and they couldn't. There becomes a time when you have to say to yourself, 'OK, they can't, so perhaps I can't, either.'"
"But there was a song that I heard late one night, about six or seven years, on the Internet, a Hendrix rarity that I had never heard before. The song is called 'Sending My Love to Linda.' For an artist who's probably the most emotive guitarist that has ever lived, this song in particular had a drive, a connectivity, and an emotional velocity that I'd never heard before—and it was a song that I'd never heard before. So for me, in that moment, it wasn't so much about the artifacts. We've seen those films that try so hard to include all of the recognizable artifacts, and they often feel hindered by that. A film that I love is Sid & Nancy. I'm not a punk rock fan, but I love the film because it's about two people who are no good for anyone else in the world but each other. You feel it, and you're there every step of the way."
"At that point, the rights issue never felt like a negative—it felt liberating. I knew the story had to be about these people, these emotions, and how they relate to each other."
JIMI: All Is By My Side will open theatrically in June.
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