Imagining the year in which a sideman named Jimmy Hendrix turned into a star called Jimi, John Ridley’s “All Is By My Side” is an oblique, offstage rock portrait, withholding many of the pleasures we expect from biopics in favor of a sometimes dreamy look at an inchoate artistic persona. One of the pleasures withheld is the sight of Hendrix playing “Hey Joe” or “Purple Haze,” songs that marked his entry into the UK music scene. For that reason and others, the film isn’t as commercial as one might expect for a project about one of the Sixties’ most evergreen icons. What moviegoers do get is a film both thoughtful and convincing, sympathetic but not flattering to a man who had just three years after this period’s end to make himself immortal.
One savvy move in both commercial and artistic terms is the lead casting of Andre Benjamin. The rapper, known as Andre 3000, hasn’t acted in a film since 2008’s Semi-Pro; this performance shows that (the disappointment of the OutKast movie “Idlewild” notwithstanding) Benjamin needn’t be confined to comedy and genre roles where charisma is all that’s required. Benjamin loses himself in Hendrix’s soft, melodic speech, talking earnestly about the colors his music produces and the cosmic fate of mankind without sounding like a hippie idiot.
Much of what gives this Hendrix weight is the attention of women. We meet him in New York’s Cheetah club, when Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) sees him playing with Curtis Knight and the Squires. Linda, Keith Richards’s girlfriend, knows a bit about the business, and befriends Jimmy with a purpose: She insists that he find himself artistically and make his own career. After bringing a series of heavy hitters to see him play in New York (Andrew Loog Oldham and Seymour Stein are among those who pass on signing him), she arranges for former Animals member Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley) to manage him; Chandler takes Hendrix to London to get things rolling.
The film doesn’t sugarcoat Hendrix’s treatment of Linda and her successor, longterm girlfriend Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell): Each woman experiences at least one moment when, instead of standing up for her, Hendrix pretends he doesn’t see what’s going on. Late in the film his relationship with Kathy grows seriously troubled; he assaults her one night in a pub, and while she’s still recovering he refuses to take her to the historic Monterrey Pop fest. But Ridley doesn’t make callousness the focus of his portrait.
Here, career highlights happen between the scenes. We hang out with Jimi at home and in clubs instead of seeing his first big gigs or watching as record stores stock his debut. (Two exceptions are a jam session with Cream, in which Eric Clapton was so impressed he had to leave the stage, and a film-closing cover of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with two Beatles in the audience.) We watch as the guitarist almost indifferently picks bandmates for The Experience (the flip of a coin chooses the drummer) and buys a military jacket in a thrift store (the famous piece of clothing will later be stolen by bullying London bobbies).
The film is most stylized at the beginning, with a sound design and cutting style that effectively conveys the sense of time spent with bands in rock clubs: Hours pass in a blink, conversations turn on the handfuls of words that stand out from the chatter, someone you don’t know points your life in a fateful new direction. Though Linda, the catalyst in those early scenes, fades from view for much of the film, she remains in many ways its center: Two scenes in which the pair meet for heart-to-heart talks are charged to an extent no guitar-playing here can match. It’s no surprise to hear that Ridley got interested in making a Hendrix film after hearing an obscure recording called “Sending My Love to Linda.”