My favorite of all of the thousands critiques that explain why the Star Wars prequels were terrible comes from comedian Patton Oswalt. Oswalt argues that the prequels were fundamentally misguided from their conception, and to prove this point he walks us through what must have been George Lucas’ thought process: people think Darth Vader is cool, so maybe they would like to see Darth Vader as a child and learn how he became evil. Oswalt then points out the flaw in that logic: it’s like saying people like ice cream, and ice cream is made out of milk and rock salt, so I should show them a cow getting milked and salt being stirred into the pail. An origin story can be interesting, but if it doesn’t provide the same level of excitement as the story we already know then it’s bunk; ice cream and salted milk are not interchangeable.
Jimi: All Is By My Side is a better movie than the Star Wars prequels, but it is still pretty unfulfilling because it makes that same mistake. This bio-pic about the early days of Jimi Hendrix places too much emphasis on things that might have been important for his artistic growth but which have barely any relationship to his artistic output. For example, it shows how he met his manager, and then it shows how his manager got him his iconic gig at the Monterey Pop Festival – but the film ends before the festival happens. I’m glad that Hendrix had good people on his side, and I’m not against meeting the people who helped him take over the world if they are also interesting characters – but the film’s emphasis on the mundane over the magnificent is pretty underwhelming. What kind of nuts and bolts obsessed weirdo is more interested in how a guitarist booked a gig than the gig itself?
I can understand Jimi: All Is By My Side’s intentions to a point: it wants to explore the general milieu of 1960s New York and London, and it wants to humanize a man who has been transformed into an icon. The film succeeds on both goals up to a point. Whoever was tasked with recreating that era for this movie has the eye of a true archivist and Andre Benjamin (aka Andre 3000 from Outkast) gives a solid performance as Hendrix. The problem is that both topics have been so thoroughly strip mined by now that simply illustrating isn’t going to be enough to entertain me. The boomers have been churning out navel gazing tributes to the summer of love for so long that I would die a happy man if I never encountered one more. And is a human version of Hendrix really more compelling than the larger than life version we already know?
Perhaps I should clarify that point: I’m not against deflating a myth on general principle, but if there’s a choice of watching an icon be iconic or watching a normal dude be normal… Well, that’s no choice at all. This film just doesn’t have enough creative spark to do a good job of contrasting our default perception of Hendrix with how it wants us to see him; most of it’s ideas on how to illustrate Hendrix’s path to success will look very familiar to anyone who has a passing familiarity with starving artists. The petty fights with girlfriends, the worrying about the rent, the struggles to find a voice that’s distinct from his peers – it’s all fine, but it’s easily of a piece with a thousand other stories of young men with hunger and potential.
I don’t want to totally shortchange this movie, which does occasionally display a unique perspective. In particular, I’m thinking of one scene where Hendrix and a black militant argue about whether Hendrix needs to use his public visibility to be an advocate for his people or whether there really is a group of people that is “his”. That scene has a real charge to it, and it seems specific to a time and a place in a way that all the petty bickering with groupies doesn’t. But whatever spark that scene had is quickly lost in the next wave of scenes where Hendrix petulantly argues with another woman he doesn’t respect. I’m sure Hendrix did juggle different women, and he was probably mean to all of them – but it’s kind of repetitive to watch him treat different people the exact same way.
If the film had been more energetic it might have worked. The only reason why you would show a young unsuccessful Hendrix is because that’s where all the tension is – if you pick the story up once he’s been cast as an angel who was sent to Earth to elevate our ideas of what artistic expression could be then there’s not going to be nearly as much struggle. But this film doesn’t know how to illustrate his struggle in ways that feel fresh or insightful. Jimi: All Is By My Side wants to reveal the uncomfortable child who was secretly inside the icon the whole time – but you know, I liked him better when he was Darth Vader.
Winner: The Cat