Australian Premiere of Hendrix Biopic, Flops

JIMI

2013 John Ridley (Director), Jimi: All Is by My Side, Darko Entertainment

The Australian Premiere of the 2013 Hendrix biopic, Jimi: All Is by My Side screened at the Cremorne Orpheum tonight as part of the Sydney Film Festival, and while it received a warm round of applause from loyal fans at the end of the closing scene, Ridley’s film is, unfortunately, a critical disappointment. Making my way out of the cinema into the Thursday night rain as the audience gobbled down the last pieces of popcorn, I wondered why John Ridley had ever bothered trifling with a life he seems to know little about, other than what has been hashed and rehashed in boring after boring biography of a young man whose life had been cut short, and who remains both enigma and stranger to admirers and detractors alike.

The film attempts to the tell the story of Hendrix’s pre-fame period from his days as a freelance guitarist in New York until his hotly anticipated arrival at San Francisco Airport for the mythical Monterey Pop Festival. All the turning points are covered off: Woodshedding as a freelancer at The Cheeter Club in NYC, being discovered by Linda Keith at The Cafe Wha? in the village, Chas Chandler’s religious epiphany on seeing Hendrix and then taking him back to England, his introduction to his lover Kathy Etchingham (more on poor Kathy in just a moment), the upstaging of Guitar God, Eric Clapton, at the London Polytechnic, the recording of Are You Experienced, and the Monterey warm-up show at Brian Epstein’s Saville Theatre, with Beatles Paul McCartney and George Harrison present in the audience.

But this is all the film does: briefly touching upon a few turning points; smoothing out the creases of a rich and varied life into a sequence of fabled eyewitness accounts that have been well-chronicled in scores of books, websites and films. In my opinion, that’s summarising, not story telling.

Hendrix’s childhood is reduced to a fleeting glimpse of the family home in Seattle, and a desultory reference to his mother, whose personal history and complex relationship with her son remains unexamined. Experience musicians, Noel Redding and Mitch Mitchell, barely make an appearance and if you did not know any better, you would have sworn Hendrix made it all on his own.

André Benjamin’s performance as Jimi, is, sad to say, an excellent impersonation of a clown, a character that Hendrix himself had cultivated for public consumption early in his career and later tried desperately and unsuccessfully to walk away from. Some of the lines that were fed into Benjamin’s mouth are so utterly stupid and cringeworthy, that the lady sitting two rows ahead of me, squirmed in her seat, and audibly winced at least on two occasions.

Kathy Etchingham and Linda Keith, played by Halley Atwell and Imogen Poots, each have their charms, but their characters share the same one-dimensional quality as Ridley’s Jimi. Notably, there are two scenes in which Atwell’s character is physically abused by Hendrix, and the real world Etchingham who now lives in Melbourne Australia, has come out of obscurity, claiming these incidents never happened. It might bring Etchingham a measure of comfort to appreciate that this film is unlikely to garner much attention both at home and abroad. Which brings us to the subject of Hendrix’s music.

There are no Hendrix compositions in this film, as the estate refused to license the rights to Ridley. Because of this legal restriction, this had to be a pre-fame film; though the absence of Hendrix Experience material should not have undermined the value of the story. And herein lies one of the unfulfilled promises of Jimi: All Is by my Side. The silencing of well known songs such as ‘Purple Haze’, ‘Stone Free, ‘Hey Joe’ and ‘Wind Cries Mary’ has the potential to recast Hendrix as a stranger in a strange land, de-familiarsing what we think we know about him, thereby inviting us to look at and hear his legacy through a fresh pair of eyes and ears. Evidently, the film is nowhere near good enough to make this happen. Apart from a bit of tasty guitar playing, lithe bodies (check out Benjamin’s six-pack) and some cool film editing, Jimi: All Is by My Side offers little historical or entertainment value.

As I was exiting the theatre, I looked back at the women who had winced. She appeared to be in her early 70s, attractive, well-dressed in a fitted wind cheater, silk scarf and carefully coiffured hair. I did a double-take and it dawned upon me that that woman was in fact Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s English girlfriend. It must be strange and flattering to see a great actor in a great film portraying your life. When the opposite applies, not so much.

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