A penetrating and insightful performance from Andre Benjamin lends sufficient gravitas to John Ridley’s fact-based tale of Jimi Hendrix in the year leading up to his debut at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Benjamin — aka Andre 3000 of rap duo Outkast — convincingly inhabits Hendrix during a largely unknown period of his life, imbuing the character with alternating currents of confidence, tumult and prescient wordplay; everything about the performance is lyrical.
The first film from Ridley since his Oscar win for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, Jimi: All Is by My Side skirts around the Hendrix estate’s tight control of his catalog by focusing on the artist’s life in 1966 and 1967. At the time, Hendrix was moving from Curtis Knight’s band to fronting his own blues-rock outfit and then, after moving to England, forming The Experience. Aside from his musical development, the film also shows Hendrix feeding off the encouragement of Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) and his own love interest Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), both of whom bask in the guitarist’s aura and suffer at his hands.
Offscreen, the trio of guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Kenny Aronoff do a superb job fabricating believable jam sessions, auditions and, at the film’s apex, a stellar take on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
Ridley’s a stickler for the truth in other aspects as well, breaking the film’s flow with unnecessary frozen frames with onscreen name tags to identify Richards and others. But as successfully as Benjamin’s performance and Ridley’s script capture Hendrix’s mercurial nature, fiction seems to be incorporated as well. Elements of the action will have doubters, most notably a disturbing scene in which he beats girlfriend Kathy in a nightclub. For all the film’s positives, its success could hinge on the veracity of that one scene.