Jimi: All Is by My Side full movie review - Check out the white guitar. Really!
A friend of mine asked if "All is by my side" was really made without the use of a single Hendrix song. I mulled it over and realized that it was the case.
What struck me is that until that moment, I had not thought of it. Even though I grew up with a consciousness of Hendrix's music in my permanent background, I was engrossed in this emotionally stirring picture and never noticed the seamless trickery. This, paired with the realization that the film was what we call in the business "buried" on distribution, (meaning that no money was spent advertising to people about its release or existence,) prompted me to write this review for the few out there who might be on the fence about buying the BluRay, and giving writer-director John Ridley some luv.
Assuming that the Jimi Hendrix estate was the prime reason behind the decision to make a Hendrix film without "Hey Joe" or "Purple Haze" and all the rest, it behooves the clever viewer to dig beneath the surface to see what John Ridley considered important enough to stake his sterling reputation upon. What follows are not Spoilers, since I do not talk about strong plot points beyond the theme, but I do expose what I perceive to be strong symbols and subtext. Reader beware.
André Benjamin who stars as Hendrix is remarkable. His characterization is total, complete with the graceful handling of left-handed guitar licks, but it is down to his eyes and voice - his sultry portrayal of the man is dizzying. And you can read about that anywhere...
This picture manipulates symbols and suggestions artfully, and although the elements of the manipulation are a mere fact of Jimi Hendrix's own biography (in which, admittedly, I am not at all versed) it is apparent that Ridley, a Black writer-director, understood their deep power. At the root of it is a white Fender guitar, which is "granted" to Hendrix by Linda Keith, the White English Rolling Stones groupie who falls for him in a dingy New York club, at a time when he hasn't got a name or the slightest audience. When I was a boy, someone pointed out that the shape of the guitar was evoking the curves of a woman, an observation so simple that I took it for granted ever since. In Ridley's story, that white guitar should be spelled with a capital "W" since it comes to represent the crystallized ideal that Linda Keith has envisioned. The film goes on to suggest that it is she, more than anyone, who helps Hendrix get his head out of his ass and take his show on the road. She is also instrumental in finding him his White English agent, and ultimately his White admirers.
Is this important? Clearly in the mid-sixties in the USA, a pretty, rich White American girl might not have wanted to be seen with a Black musician. And if she had, for whatever reason, she would certainly not have understood the type of projection that was needed to make him palatable to a White audience, which is of course the crux of Hendrix's later worldwide success. People well versed in travel will know that this type of sexual and racial transgression was always more feasible in Europe, and particularly in the UK.
I often wondered how Jimi Hendrix became one of the first truly significant Black men to transcend cultural racial boundaries and open the door to several more instances in subsequent decades, because all my life, it was clear that Whites, often more than Blacks, were affected by his musical innovations and swagger. The common idea about this is that music simply transcends boundaries. Fair enough, but is there more? For instance, is music not fundamentally sexual? Is sex not about power?
In this film, John Ridley provided me with a possible theory, if not an explanation: Jimi Hendrix jumps on the chance to date White women and thus to commit the most effective act of socio-sexual transgression, which is to gun for the object of desire at the summit of the power pyramid - the conquest of the beautiful White woman.
I give particular credit to Ridley for not shying away from the inevitable confrontation (not the one with the racist police, nope!), with a Black English brother who challenges him to come back to his own kind. The sexual context surrounding this invitation, and Hendrix's dismissal, is so evident that one cannot help wonder if therein rested much of the passion and focus at the heart of Hendrix's own ability to cross over. I'll leave it at that. The amazing feat in Ridley's picture is that you can alternatively see it or miss it entirely. But it's all there.
So at the end of the day, discussions about gaining insights into the mind of Jimi through his top ten songs are blown away by the clues handed down by his top two women. The film is powerful, but perhaps not in ways that people can exactly predict.
The conceit of great movie making is that great film makers know that great art never earns money, at least never fast enough for investors' appetite. Yet they have to trick everyone into helping to make it anyway, because without great art, the gigantic mass of money making junk cannot point to great art to cause envy, and capture the spirit of consumers.
Apparently, another, bigger picture about Hendrix starring Anthony Mackie is being made - presumably with more help from the estate - and consequently with a larger budget. The question is, with more screen time devoted to "The Wind Cries Mary" and "The Star Spangled Banner" will the next Hendrix biopic get in there and expose some deep grit about sex, music, and the mechanics of insemination of a culture? I would contend that "All is by my side" is the one to see.