No Jimi Hendrix-penned songs can be heard in Jimi: All Is By My Side, and the reason for their absence (or at least the officially supplied reason) is exactly why it’s not a glaring omission: Writer-director John Ridley decided to break from the biopic assembly manual and focus exclusively on a single year of the legendary guitarist’s life. The movie begins in the summer of 1966 and closes just as the Jimi Hendrix Experience goes off to play their famous set at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Most of the narrative takes place in London, where Hendrix (Outkast’s André Benjamin) moves to find his artistic voice.
This transition is enabled by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), an Englishwoman who sees him at a New York club and encourages his artistic development. Their relationship is flirtatious and sometimes intense, but Linda stays loyal to her boyfriend at the time, Keith Richards; to Hendrix, she becomes a bizarre hybrid of fan, manager, mother, and platonic girlfriend. Over in London, Linda’s confidence is soon matched by Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), who doesn’t hesitate to enter a romantic relationship with a burgeoning rock star.
All Is By My Side very much defines its Jimi Hendrix through these two women, and the two actresses do strong work in roles that go beyond the usual love interests: Poots summons a posh air of authority, while Atwell offers contrast with her mouthier, earthier approach. Removing Hendrix’s specific songs (and any museum-quality re-creations of them) keeps the movie grounded in these relationships, even when Ridley fails to fulfill the promise of a focused, human-scale biography—at least of Hendrix himself.
As Linda recedes from the movie and Kathy becomes more prominent, the point of view shifts around, but it rarely settles on the movie’s purported main character. Benjamin, speaking in an airy hippie tone, does his best to lace laid-back charisma with ambition and flashes of anger. But if he tries to disappear into the role, the role disappears into the movie more easily. While All Is By My Side shows Hendrix indulging a violent streak, for example, it doesn’t do or say much else about the issue (beyond the implied hypocrisy of his general hippie philosophy).
It’s hard to hear what All Is By My Side is saying about anything, given how many scenes feature vaguely druggy overlapping dialogue, part of a fussy sound design that’s paired with intentionally choppy editing. Conversations are often assembled with a disorienting rhythm, Ridley cutting away from a character as soon as he or she begins to speak or not matching the dialogue track with shots of the characters actually speaking. The resulting haze of chatter sometimes turns evocative: Late in the movie, Ridley shoots scenes between Benjamin and Atwell to keep them both from sharing the focus or the frame at the same time. Plenty of other artistic flourishes, though, feel more like noodling, such as the way the movie interrupts itself for photos and historical footage that are supposed to offer context but instead make the surrounding scenes play more like cheap reenactments.
It’s especially strange that All Is By My Side takes a vaguely alienating approach to its subject when so much of the story involves Hendrix, initially not a gregarious performer, attempting to better connect with his audience. Toward the end of the movie, Hendrix plays a concert in London attended by The Beatles; it’s an electrifying sequence that engages with rock ’n’ roll myth-making while harnessing Benjamin’s mischievous charisma. Briefly, the movie becomes the more intimate Hendrix chronicle Ridley obviously desires. (There’s also a smaller but amusing moment earlier in the movie, when Hendrix’s playing shames Eric Clapton off the stage at his own concert.) Jimi Hendrix: All Is By My Side knows the pitfalls of musician biopics that cram a lifetime into a formula, and it knows that musicians are more than just their hit songs. It also dissects Hendrix into such thin slices that it’s hard to see him at all.