There’s a moment roughly halfway into John Ridley’s Jimi: All Is By My Side that perfectly summarizes everything that’s typically missing from the biopic genre, even if it feels at the time like curiously tame filmmaking. One night in a London nightclub, the normally tight-lipped Jimi Hendrix (André Benjamin) asks his manager if he can join Eric Clapton, his hero, on stage. The deal is nervously tendered (Clapton has never heard of the young guitarist), and Jimi walks outside to get his axe from the car. Halfway out, he realizes he has half a cigarette left; in a brief moment of silent contemplation, he finishes it while leaning against the vehicle, doing nothing but taking in the evening’s situation before whatever is about to happen happens. The majority of Benjamin’s performance is constituted by unspoken moments like this one, but when he goes on stage, Jimi’s sets are loud, raucous, bluesy, reverbed-out. His talent is unmistakable, but your ears don’t strain themselves to measure his sound against a specific recording of the real thing: Even in this musician’s life, sometimes a gig is just a gig.
Nobody who’s ever seen one of these movies before could be blamed for expecting Jimi to build to a painful climactic recreation of Hendrix’s legendary National Anthem solo at Woodstock. But Ridley’s screenplay takes the opposite tack, dramatizing the many shows, parties, meetings, late nights, and long days that constituted the artist’s life in 1966 and into 1967. His strained, platonic relationship with Keith Richards’s girlfriend, Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), is the dramatic engine for the film’s first half; once she helps get him to the U.K., his experiences there—recording Are You Experienced?, touring, and starting to meet the right people—gain him significant celebrity momentum. Opting for scenes that tend to be fragmented, flawed snippets from a much bigger story, the film exudes a bizarre confidence in not trying to encapsulate the singer’s whole life in 120 minutes. Much has been made of the production’s legal banishment from drawing songs from the copyrighted Hendrix catalogue, but it proves a non-event; it is, in fact, possible to tell some version of this story without the opening bars of “Purple Haze.”
Jimi freaks out on drugs, and he also randomly—and viciously—attacks his girlfriend, Katchy Etchingam (Hayley Atwell). He bungles TV interviews in a stoned daze, and spends 45 minutes getting in tune at a concert, to the horror of the many onlookers who’ve been championing him. But against the typical biopic formula, these events don’t push the narrative in any specific direction; they’re the worst of many days in Jimi’s life, and their passing charts the perpetual shift in the entourages and faces surrounding him. Spoken or unspoken, the pressures he navigates—or just blindly ignores—are as much the film’s topic as the man himself, and Benjamin’s performance is encompassing enough that Jimi comes off neither a martyr, a villain, or a cautionary tale. The film has already been denounced as inaccurate—by the Hendrix estate, and most vehemently by the real Etchingam. But Ridley seems to be gambling on a sketch of Jimi as an imperfect, complicated human being, the imagined inverse of the rock n’ roll demigod we continue to lionize. The film runs a greater risk in what it tries to show us than in what it fails to Xerox for history.