Thursday, August 14, 2014

'All Is by My Side' (2014) directed by John Ridley

A music biopic that's not allowed to use one solitary note of the subject's music is a tricky proposition.  If we're not here for the music, then what are we here for? The musician's sparkling personality and social life?  What fills the gap?  Well, John Ridley's film is turns out to be less about the who and why of Jimi Hendrix and more about the sexual, racial and class politics of the 1960s, with Hendrix the prism through which we view society.  The result is loose, zoned out and languorous, constantly off into odd little explorations of the psychology of swinging London.

AndrĂ© Benjamin's Jimi Hendrix is a frustratingly gnomic centrepiece.  Your usual music biopic protagonist is driven by past tragedy that both accentuates his genius and wrecks his social life, Hendrix just plays guitar beautifully and that's pretty much that. There's a hint of annoyance regarding a broken family, but he's totally absent of any burning internal trauma. In fact he's absent of most things, mumbling his way through the movie while being coaxed towards stardom by a series of well-meaning white women.

First among them is Linda Keith (Imogen Poots).  Keith, girlfriend of Keith Richards, spots Hendrix playing in a rubbish band in New York and it is immediately smitten.  She coaxes him towards a solo career by essentially mothering him.  Imbued with upper-class English forthrightness, she behaves like an LSD gobbling Mary Poppins - ordering that Hendrix sit up straight, eat his vegetables and be charismatic on stage.  For all Poots' considerable charm Linda Keith is rather thankless character and, like Hendrix, we quickly grow sick of her.

So it's thankful that once the film reaches London we jettison her in favour of the slightly more interesting Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell).  She's a broadly drawn Northern lass with a Sheffield accent, and a far more interesting person to spend time with than Daddy's girl Linda Keith.  Even so, though Atwell really gives it some welly we still never quite zero in through the haze, as to what is actually going through her head.

Benjamin is great casting.
This loose vagueness is present throughout the entire film.  You could charitably say that Ridley's ambition is to recreate a fuzzy, acid-tinged stoned atmosphere of drugged-out late 60s London.  He plays fast and loose with the editing, demonstrating a willingness to make abrupt cuts in the middle of scenes, give us an unexpected dose of quickfire montage or the exact opposite; allowing conversations to ramble on awkwardly for minute after painful minute.  There's echoes of Antionioni's Blow-Up and Nicholas Roeg's Performance, and by and large Ridley succeeds in recreating a woozy, chilled out mood with sinister notes distantly rumbling in the background.

Underlying all that care is that, unfortunately, this Jimi Hendrix just isn't very interesting. In a heartfelt and obviously carefully judged performance AndrĂ© Benjamin recaptures the tics and body language we've seen in archive footage, but accurate to reality it might be, this Hendrix just isn't particularly fun to be around.  There's a notable scene where he meets Michael X, "the authentic voice of black bitterness" in London.  Hendrix is interrogated as to whether he's merely a novelty act for his predominantly white audience, X pointing out that reviews refer to Hendrix as "wild" and "tribal" and that these adjectives never used for white musicians.

It's a fair point.  Hendrix's response is a mushy-mouthed hippy-dippy ramble about how everyone is one people and the entire world is his audience.  The film unjustly acts like he's won this argument.  Later we hear Poots' character remark that Hendrix can be "annoyingly profound".  This might well be true, but it's something we see precious little of in Ridley's film.

The fashion is also a high point.  Hendrix wears some badass shirts.
The obvious counter-argument to Hendrix not being the most articulate bloke around is that he doesn't communicate with his words, but with his guitar.  Problem is, there's not really that much guitar playing in the film and due to them not having any rights to Hendrix's iconic tunes, what we do hear is largely formless jamming.  That we never hear even a smidge of classics like Voodoo Chile, All Along the Watchtower or Hey Joe genuinely hurts the film. Robbed of the music, it becomes a bit difficult to remember why we should care about Hendrix's story.

This all culminates  in a late scene where Hendrix graphically beats Kathy, now his girlfriend, with a telephone receiver, the film taking it's time to show us the bruises and black eyes he's inflicted.  This violence comes from nowhere and is very out of character for Benjamin's chilled out Hendrix.  Crossing this moral event horizon makes Benjamin's Hendrix rather unpleasant, and the violence poisons the remaining scenes.  It's a tone-deaf inclusion, made even more bizarre by the real life Kathy Etchingham insisting this didn't happen to the extent of considering legal action against the film.

There's a bunch of good stuff in All Is By My Side; Andre Benjamin is great, as is the supporting cast; the fashions of the time are beautifully recreated, the soundtrack is well-picked and there's a conscious effort made to evoke mood through clever editing. Unfortunately without Hendrix's songs the film feels half-formed, and it makes way too many character and tonal missteps to make up for their absence.


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