Long before Jimi Hendrix helped define a generation, he took at trip with Keith Richards’ girlfriend. When they came down from the acid, they took another trip, this time to England.
It was 1966, and the year he spent in London was instrumental in his evolution from a backup man known as Jimi James into a guitar god called Jimi Hendrix.
Yet very few people know of Hendrix’s “experience” abroad. Fortunately, John Ridley, the Academy Award-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave,” has written and directed “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” a deep and introspective look at a musical genius before the record companies and the media got hold of him.
“I wanted the audience to see Jimi as a person rather than iconography,” Ridley tells the Daily News. “This was a guy who was well read and really into science fiction. He had an amazing world view.”
That world view comes through in the rich, occasionally stoned, dialogue that is delivered in an topnotch performance by André Benjamin (aka André 3000 of Outkast), who spent four months learning how to play left-handed like Hendrix.
Benjamin portrays the future star as a surprisingly shy guy who lacks even the confidence to sing out loud on stage or even make eye-contact with the audience. This Jimi is a far cry from the force of nature who would take the stage at Woodstock a few years later to greet the dawn with an acid-rock version of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
“For my money, I don’t think there is anyone who can do what André did,” said Ridley. “I only asked a couple of things of him — to make water out of wine and to do it left-handed.”
“Jimi: All Is By My Side,” which opens Friday, is about a musician who doesn’t want to get bullied into limited musical categories. At the time clubs in New York dictated that one play blues uptown or folk downtown but never mingle the two.
“I don’t want to get caught up in those kinds of labels… It’s not about style,” Hendrix tell his future manager in the film. “I want my music to go inside the soul of a person. For me it’s colors. I want people to feel the music the way I see it.”
That manager, Chas Chandler of the rock group the Animals, decided to take a chance on Hendrix when no record executive would. He brought Hendrix to London, lined up gigs and even produced his first studio albums. But it was really Linda Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, who discovered and fell in love with Hendrix’s music.
She also fell in love with Hendrix. At least, that’s what Ridley suggests in the film. They never spent the night together, to quote the old Stones song, but the depth of feeling Keith has for him is obvious — especially when she throws beer on another woman who is trying to pick him up.
Ridley could have molded that story into a cinematic love affair. But he was going for something with less flesh and more substance.
“We throw around the word ‘love’ a lot,” Ridley said. “I believe their relationship was richer and deeper. It was a love of artistry. I hope what I imparted is something far deeper than a superficial appreciation of each other.”
Hendrix’a relationship with other women in the film is more problematic. He uses one in New York for cash and a place to stay, and then runs out on her. But that’s nothing next to what he does to his girlfriend in London — beat her across the face with a telephone. In despair, she almost dies of a drug overdose.
As with “12 Years a Slave,” Ridley apparently had no intention of sugar-coating his story, which ends just before Hendrix leaves London to play the Monterey Pop Festival in June, 1967.
By focusing his story on the year before Hendrix became a rock star, Ridley shows his audience a man who would all but vanish amidst the stardom to come.
“Why go out of the way to create things when history is there to help you?” he asks. “This story has an emotional velocity. At the same time I don’t want to genuflect in front of this individual. I want to see this person as a person.”
Jimi Hendrix Timeline:
1942 – Born Johnny Allen Hendrix in Seattle.
1961 – Joined the Army and trained as a paratrooper.
1963 – Played backup for Little Richard, The Isley Brothers and others.
1966 – Moved to London to create The Jimi Hendrix Experience.
1967 – Released his first album “Are You Experienced” with hit songs “Purple Haze” and “Hey Joe.” Gained a new American following after he played the Monterey Pop Festival.
1968 – Releases second and third albums, “Axis: Bold as Love” and “Electric Ladyland.”
1969 – The Jimi Hendrix Experience breaks up. Hendrix gives his legendary performance at Woodstock.
1970 – Dies in London from an overdose.