For one thing, as written and directed by John Ridley, an Oscar winner for his 12 Years a Slave screenplay, Jimi is not a conventional cradle-to-grave biopic.
Rather, its involving notion was to focus exclusively on one year in the life of the legendary rock star, the year before he took off like a Roman candle. It starts with Hendrix completely unknown and ends just a few days before the guitar-burning Monterey Pop Festival performance that launched him with no looking back.
But the key reason Jimi doesn’t need the signature music is the extraordinary performance of actor-musician André Benjamin, better known as André 3000 of the rap group Outkast, as Hendrix.
Though he is more than a dozen years older than Hendrix was at the time, Benjamin has worked exceptionally hard to become the man, losing weight, working on his voice and practicing eight hours a day for two and a half months to learn to play the guitar like Hendrix did at the time, doing other people’s songs like Wild Thing, Mannish Boy and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
But more than specifics is the way Benjamin is able to almost instinctively create a sense of what it must have felt like to be Hendrix, portrayed here as alternating shyness and uncertainty with complete confidence, an individual whose seeming diffidence masked pain and deeper feelings.
As conceived by Ridley and conveyed by Benjamin, Hendrix is first and foremost an artist, someone who could be fragile, elusive, quixotic and temperamental. The one constant in the year we see him is his music and his passion to make it his way and no one else’s.
Having this kind of performance as its core gives Jimi a feeling of authenticity, a sense that it is touching the intangible reality of someone who could say things like “knowledge speaks, wisdom listens” and really mean it.
Jimi opens briefly on June 4, 1967, as an expectant crowd buzzes before the start of a London concert appearance of the recently formed Jimi Hendrix Experience that is already the talk of the town.
Before we get a chance to see anything of the actual concert — that comes later — Jimi flashes back one year to a very different venue: the dank and cavernous Cheetah Club in New York where Hendrix is the guitarist for an obscure group called Curtis Knight and the Squires.
Though the club is mostly empty, an attractive young woman is looking at Hendrix with total fascination. This would be 20-year-old Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), best known as the then girlfriend of another notable guitarist, the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards.
Hendrix is nothing if not sexually attractive, something the posh, articulate Keith can’t help but notice, but her interest in the guitarist is almost exclusively in his talent. She sees potential greatness in Hendrix, even if no one else does.
Someone who was as interested in listening to Bob Dylan as Howlin’ Wolf, Hendrix has an all-inclusive vision for his music and doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed. “I’d do something new,” he tells Keith. “I’d do my own thing.” But the spacey diffidence of someone who says, “I got no intentions, I take [stuff] as it comes” is a constant frustration to her.
Keith pushes him to take the stage like he wants to amount to something, tells him “you can’t leave it to others to sort out your life” and wonders if “genius is enough to win the day” for him. Her vividly drawn character and the strongly delineated relationship she has with Hendrix are among the film’s key narrative drives.
Once Hendrix gets to London, another woman, Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), a working class type he meets in a pub, makes a move on him and enters the kind of tempestuous relationship with Hendrix that seems to be the norm for rock star liaisons.
Through it all, Jimi portrays Hendrix as someone forever intent on avoiding the boxes other people tried to put him in. Similarly, writer-director Ridley has made a film that doesn’t always explain what is seen and has an eye for significant events that are played off the beat. When Hendrix says he is after music that will get “inside the soul of someone,” he is speaking for this film’s goals as well.
Cast: Andre Benjamin, Imogen Poots, Hayley Atwell.
Writer-director: John Ridley.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 116 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situation, adult themes. Playing at O Cinema Wynwood, South Beach.