Jimi: All is By My Side is not the story about the guy who dipped his headband in acid before shows. It’s not the story about the guy who set his guitar on fire in 1967 in front of 90,000 people. It’s not the story about the guy who smashed a vodka bottle into his girlfriend’s face.
The film, the first from director-screenwriter John Ridley since he won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay for last year’s Twelve Years a Slave, stars Outkast’s Andre Benjamin (Andre 3000) and chronicles the seminal year of ’66 to ’67 – moments before Hendrix’s explosion of fame.
The film focuses on Hendrix as the person behind the rock god. It details his relationships with the women that influenced his life and career. It shows the shy, daydreamer that existed behind the icon that defined cool. Here, Benjamin and Ridley discuss their version of a Jimi Hendrix that no one has ever seen before.
THE RED BULLETIN: How is Jimi: All is By My Side different from all of the other portrayals of Jimi Hendrix?
JOHN RIDLEY: For a film to be relevant it has got to be informative. We could do something that you can see on DVD or that’s been represented in other films, or even in commercials selling cars, or we can give life to moments like Jimi and Eric Clapton playing at the [Central London] Polytechnic that some people may know about, but none of us will ever get the opportunity to see.
ANDRE BENJAMIN: I think what resonates with the human is seeing the human side of another human. Things like knowing that Hendrix was nervous, knowing that he didn’t like his voice, knowing that it actually took a minute for him to get comfortable.
Why Jimi Hendrix?
RIDLEY: Honestly, for me, it was a Hendrix rarity that I heard one night. It was a song that had a drive and an emotion and a feeling that even for Hendrix music was something that I had not felt before, and the title of the song was Send My Love to Linda. I really felt that if there was a way to tell the story in a way that people could feel the emotion that I felt when I was hearing that song, then it would be worthwhile.
What was your first exposure to Hendrix?
BENJAMIN: I discovered Hendrix in my early twenties. I think I was watching a war film, it was a helicopter scene and All Along the Watch Tower was playing. That was the first time I heard a Hendrix song and it had these crazy solos and from that point on I was a Hendrix fan.
RIDLEY: My first experience was from a book that I got from a library. It was interesting because my exposure was more knowledge-based and word-based. When the reissues came out and I heard Axis: Bold is Love as an album in its entirety and I started reading Electric Gypsy, it was just a confluence of thought and sound that really sent me in another direction.
How do you prepare for being the greatest guitarist of all time?
BENJAMIN: I’m a shit guitarist, man. I’m a right hand guitarist; I’m more of a punk guitarist, loud and fast. When we were preparing to make the movie we thought that we could do it right handed and then flip the image so I could look as comfortable as possible. But it would be way too expensive to shoot that way so we decided to go with the left handed gig and I was really not confident in it at all. Left handed anything is just horrible. I don’t mean to be vulgar but it’s like if you masturbated with your right hand all your life and then you have to switch it up. It just throws you off.
RIDLEY: I told Andre he had to do two things: he had to turn water into wine and he had to do it with his left hand. And if he could do that we would have a film. He somehow actually pulled it off.
As you learned more about him and researched, what surprised you most about Hendrix?
BENJAMIN: Hendrix’s confidence in his playing and [the fact that] he was pretty ballsy. You will see it in the film when Hendrix has to go on stage and play with Clapton. Later on there’s an interview where Hendrix says ‘Man, I hate that that actually happened because I love Clapton and I really love his playing and I would love to play with Clapton every day. But I knew at that point it came down to a me or him and I knew walking to the stage that I would have to burn him to make it.’
Are you kindred spirits now?
BENJAMIN: I can’t say that I’m spiritually connected to him. [But] there are those certain crossing points in our careers: I know what it’s like to be a nervous artist, I know what it’s like to grow as an artist, I know what it’s like to want full freedom in what you’re doing, I know what it’s like to want to fully throw yourself into music, and I know what it’s like to want to look cool while you’re doing it.
It’s been said that Jimi turned into a different person when he drank. How do you show a hero that has a dark side?
RIDLEY: He is a rock and roll god and deserves to be for all the things he did, but he’s also a person and it was always our intent to approach him as a person and tell the story about a human being.