Jimi: All Is By My Side, John Ridley's fly-on-the-wall feature about rock god Jimi Hendrix's pivotal trip to London in 1966 and 1967, has the candid, verite vibe of some lost documentary by the Maysles Brothers or D.A. Pennebaker. Edited with the stop-and-start rhythms of a serpentine Hendrix guitar solo, the film moves in and out of bars and clubs, hotel rooms and mod boutiques, nailing the time-capsule details - the vintage military regalia, the miniskirts, the cars and amps, the analog recording studio with the uptight engineer.
But it's in the uncanny performance of André Benjamin, half of the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast, channeling the piercingly perceptive and decidedly loopy Hendrix, that the film really gets it right. The not-yet-a-legend's transformation from reined-in backup musician (for Little Richard, for Curtis Knight) to wildly confident, creative guitarist is chronicled in trenchant vignettes. Benjamin captures Hendrix's nodding swagger, his effortless cool, and most important, his voice - going beyond mimicry into some other, spookier realm.
Because the Hendrix estate would not release music rights, veteran session musician Waddy Wachtel was hired on to approximate the sinuous, improvisatory blues flurries that were Hendrix's hallmark. Combined with Benjamin's doppelgänging screen presence, it's virtual Hendrix.
A key figure in this tale, diligently researched by Ridley (who won an Oscar for his screenplay of 12 Years a Slave), is Linda Keith, girlfriend to the Rolling Stones' Keith Richards. She caught Hendrix at an early gig in New York's Cheetah Lounge. The crowd was mostly uninterested, drinking and talking, but Linda - a part-time model from a well-off English family - heard something in Hendrix's playing, saw something in the way he prowled the stage, lost in his rhythms and reveries.
Imogen Poots plays Linda with a saucy directness. The woman uses her attractiveness and her allure, and shows entrepreneurial cunning, too, and a genuine instinct, and appreciation for talent.
Linda brings record company execs and managers in to see Hendrix play, but most of them don't get it. Then she brings him to London. Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), just departed from the Animals and planning to set up shop as a manager, takes Hendrix on.
When a hairdresser, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), makes a beeline for Hendrix at a bar, Linda gets territorial, but eventually she cedes to the other woman. A radicalized American expat, Ida (Ruth Negga), also becomes part of Hendrix's London coterie.
Jimi: All Is By My Side succeeds where many music biopics falter. It steers clear of cliche, and its doclike approach deflates the melodrama, makes the "big" moments of triumph and turmoil seem like just more chapters in the life - one that ended on Sept. 18, 1970, at age 27 of a barbiturate overdose.
That's something else Ridley and his actors do: make you appreciate what a life it was - impossibly short, impossibly brilliant.
Directed by John Ridley. With André Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell, Ruth Negga, Andrew Buckley. Distributed by Open Road Films.
Running time: 1 hour, 58 mins.
Parent's guide: R (sex, profanity, violence, drugs, adult themes).
Playing at: Ritz Five, UA King of Prussia, and Carmike at the Ritz Center/NJ.EndText