October 26, 2014

That Breakthrough Year



By Harvey Kubernik

OutKast’s Andre Benjamin stars as Jimi Hendrix in the film, Jimi: All Is By My Side biopic from writer-director John Ridley (U-Turn, Three Kings, 12 Years a Slave).

The movie covers a year in Hendrix’s life from 1966-67; starting from when he was an unknown backup guitarist playing New York’s Cheetah Club and following him through time paying in London’s music scene up to his Monterey International Pop Festival triumph.

“’Mesmerizing!’ is how Kenneth Turan, of The Los Angeles Times described Ridley’s film, while Peter Travers of Rolling Stone proclaimed, ‘Electrifying! Andre Benjamin’s magnetic performance is a star-spangled triumph.’”

Filmmaker and writer John Ridley,  was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and resides in Sherman Oaks, California. He is also the author of seven published novels.


Clockwise from top left: Writer/Director John Ridley; Ruth Negga as Ida; and Hayley Atwell as Kathy Etchingham with Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in Ridley’s film, Jimi: All Is By My Side.


Q: “A lot has happened in two years,” as you said introducing the movie premiere in Hollywood at the Arc Light Theater. What drew you to the saga of Jimi Hendrix to write and direct a picture on him covering a year in his life from 1966-1967?

A: I’ve been very fortunate to be a writer in Hollywood for a good number of years. And it is one of those stories that in different forms people would either ask you to come in and pitch on or various versions to try and write it. To a degree they were serviceable ideas. Back in the day they tended to be the cradle to the grave kind of bio pics that people were doing. For a long time that was the way stories were told. But I think audiences have matured, their expectations and tolerance for more depth of story-telling as opposed to greatest hits versions of the story has evolved.

“And for me as someone who thought he was a Hendrix fan, when it got to the point that I really started to explore this particular year and these events and the rapidity that these events happened. One after another. Meeting Chas Chandler, Noel Redding, Mitch Mitchell. Eric Clapton, playing for the Beatles, it really felt there was an emotional velocity to this story. As well as an opportunity to look at some key relationships that a lot of people may not be aware of.

“So, all of that to me together there just came a point where it was less about me trying to figure out a story and a story that was there that was really dictating the way it was told.

Q: What was it like being the screenwriter and director? Easier or harder in the duality of wearing both hats?

A: It was unique because I think it was both of those things. I really believed I had a powerful script that was put together. And people were obviously attracted to it. But this time was my opportunity. I really wanted to come to it with a strong vision for these characters, a vision for their emotional drive and a vision in terms of the style of filmmaking. The language of cinema. I believe if I can do those things and keep the focus on all of them that there was a story here that people can relate to.

Q: So much has written about the movie’s lack of securing original Jimi Hendrix recordings but, even at his June 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival return to the States big moment, five of his nine numbers in his live set were cover versions. I found it refreshing in your movie to see Jimi’s 1966 world where he was still doing covers and writing his first songs and not the constant usage of “Purple Haze” and “All Along Watchtower.” I’m on your side on this one.

A: I do appreciate that. I think a lot of people appreciate that and the history of music and where it came from. Whether it be Jimi or the Beatles and where they start somewhere and take these other songs and really make them their own. Jimi, more than anything, was an artist who could do that as well with ‘Hey Joe,’ ‘All Along the Watchtower.” People are gonna come to it and expect a greatest hits version of that and I get it. Because those hits are hits for a reason.

“But I do hope folks like yourself who have a deeper richer understanding of the whole process will have an appreciation of songs that we were able to use in the film. ‘Mannish Boy’ to ‘Hound Dog’ ‘Wild Thing’ to ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely hearts Club Band.’ Not having a piece of music was not a limitation.

Q: You take us into the 1966 and early summer ’67 world of Jimi in London. The people are really part of his orbit and not auxiliary friends.

A: Honestly, I don’t think the people around Jimi were auxiliary in any sense. These folks really informed the Jimi that we came to know. Whether it was Linda [Keith] meeting him and introducing him to Chas, who had a real understanding of both sides of the music business, having been a player, and at that point being a nascent manager and wanting to treat acts as people rather than dollar signs. Kathy [Etchingham] and the time they spent together, even going to the park and listening to the Salvation Army Band, Jimi being fascinated by
the uniforms.

“Ida in this version is a rep-resentation of depth, and the reason I call her Ida yet they had not met at the time. But I thought it was very important to be additive with his girlfriend who had a real Afro-centric perspective on him and their relationship. And how it was different than with Linda and Kathy. So I think all of these individuals helped inform the Jimi we came to know.

“Jimi at age 24 he had played with Ike & Tina Turner, the Isley Brothers, Little Richard and really hadn’t found great success with them. So to speak, a little bit washed up and playing as a backing artist in a band. He probably could have gone on to be very successful but were it not for these key relationships we have the Jimi Hendrix we mostly identify with. It’s hard to say.

“So it was very important in this story to show these people as people, hopefully complicated people and try and delve into these relationships as possibly could. Honestly it remains these personal connections.

“One of the things I always thought was the strength was the connectivity of these characters and the very quiet and thoughtful nature of someone like Jimi. To be able to take someone who so many of us revere ‘cause of his outside personality on stage, and to be able to take quiet moments where people are just sitting in clubs and or in a room laying together. Sometimes some of these scenes are worth it for emotion, intent and they move together.

“That to me to be able to feel that from the early stage of discovering the story and then watch the film playback time and time again and still feel that and be able to translate that from the inception of the idea to the words on the page to how we filmed it to the final edit, that to me is the most powerful thing.

Q: Do you write to music?

A: Yes I do. Sometimes I like to write in a quiet space but it can be distracting listening to music. Certainly the song that sent me on this journey was “Send My Love to Linda.” [from a Record Plant session in summer 1970]. That was a song I listened to over and over again. Not just when I was writing but when I would go for a run and put it on my iPod and just play it over and
over again.

“Because I want to be reminded about the passion and the emotions I felt the first time I heard that song. A lot of times it’s more when I’m out running or doing other things, driving a car, because I’ll start thinking about scenes and moments that I want to try and express. And it’s a way to really keep me on point with the story.

Andre Benjamin

Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix in, Jimi: All Is By My Side.

Q: What did you learn as a screenwriter from 12 Years a Slave that you applied to your Hendrix movie?

A: Well, a couple of things. One thing I learned in general it’s not about the words on the page. When you’re a young writer, at least for me, you’re in love with your own words because you’re a writer. You got to write as much as possible.

Q: Well, as James Baldwin said, “If you’re not writing you’re not doing anything.”

A: You’re not doing anything. And, as Miles Davis said, ‘sometimes it’s the notes that you leave out.’

“That to me is hopefully where I’ve matured a little bit in about leaving words out and letting the moment play itself. And I think you see some of that in 12 Years a Slave as well. In Solomon’s memoir it is so nuanced, so rich, and rich in its environment there are places where it wasn’t about the words but hopefully creating a scene that had its own power.

“For me, again, I can only hope that it’s a level of maturation as a writer to be confident in all aspects of both the material that I’ve been able to work as well as all the other artisans working on the film that it doesn’t have to be all about words. And I certainly believe with the Hendrix film I found a way to express that.

Q: Tell me about working with Andre Benjamin

A: I can’t say enough about Andre. As a person; as an artist. His work ethic. This is someone who put in months, seven or eight months into the entire process.

From originally sitting down with me. He lives in Atlanta and came out to Los Angeles tow work with me and talk about cinema, to talk about the kind of story we wanted to tell. He worked with a guitar and vocal coach and put himself on a diet. There was so much that he put into it as a performer as an artist, as an actor, building the chemistry between the two actresses, Imogen and Hayley, and that’s really to me exceptionally important.

“You can write what you think are terrific scenes. You can find interesting ways of hopefully direct those scenes but if the actors don’t have a certain chemistry, particularly in a film like this, which is so much about connectivity, you end up with a whole lot of nothing.

“So for Andre Benjamin, who has afforded himself a place in life where he can do pretty much whatever he wants to choose to not openly be involved in this project but to really decide that he was going to be honorific in the approach to it that’s pretty special. It really is. In that regard what he put into it was just phenomenal. I believe the movie works in general but I would say if it works at all it’s because of Andre and the connection he has with Imogen, Hayley and Ruth as well.


Harvey Kubernik has been an active music journalist for over 40 years and is the author of six books, including This Is Rebel Music (2002) and Hollywood Shack Job: Rock Music in Film and on Your Screen (2004), published by the University of New Mexico Press.


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