Groupie has come to be an ugly word, a misogynist dig that's used all too casually by men and women alike. A groupie is a woman who doesn't "do" anything; she gets all of her glamour via her association with a strong man, most often a rock star. How can we admire, or even just respect, someone like that? How can we see her as a person at all if she herself doesn't play guitar, write songs or command an audience? If feminism, however you define it, has given us a greater understanding of everything women are capable of being and doing, it also has a dark side: Women who don't "do" enough — whatever "enough" is — are better kept out of the club.
Whatever its flaws may be — and there are many — John Ridley's Jimi: All Is By My Side is compelling for one specific reason: It's more attuned to the women in Hendrix's life than it is to Hendrix himself, who at times almost recedes into the background, despite the fact that he's played by the almost criminally charismatic André Benjamin. This is a strange and only semi-successful picture, an attempt at mapping one significant year in the life of Jimi Hendrix. Instead of celebrating Hendrix's greatness, it accepts that greatness as a given, a glittering, self-evident thing. That approach may be something of a workaround. Ridley — who wrote and directed one previous feature, 1997's Cold Around the Heart, but who's more famous for having written the script for 12 Years a Slave — couldn't secure the rights to Hendrix's music. The few times we see Benjamin re-creating the Hendrix mystique onstage, he's performing covers like "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "Wild Thing." Anyone expecting All Is By My Side to be a greatest-hits survey has grasped the wrong end of the Stratocaster.
But it at least has a spark of life to it, and Ridley's decision to focus on Hendrix's first year in London — from 1966 to 1967 — frees rather than limits him. The film opens with the pre-fame Hendrix — a man with clear star power but no platform for liftoff — playing to a meager crowd at New York's Cheetah Club. But one woman in that club is transfixed: Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), a smart, well-bred English girl who happens to be Keith Richards' girlfriend. And right away, Ridley shows us how the world views her: A fellow clubgoer recognizes her as a Rolling Stone satellite and approaches her for an autograph. She rebuffs him, but the point is clear: Nobody in this universe thinks much of Linda Keith as a person; the famous guy she's sleeping with is the only thing that defines her.
Luckily, Keith serves a greater purpose, both in history and in the movie: She introduces Hendrix to Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the former Animals bassist who would become his manager, and who hustles him off to London, where, they hoped, audiences might be more amenable to an African American guitarist whose style is rooted in jazz and blues. In London, Hendrix falls for another woman, even though Keith has been keeping a watchful, affectionate eye on him: Kathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell) is the girlish, likable redhead who nudges her way into their circle; she and Hendrix will be a couple, of sorts, until the end of Hendrix's life.
All Is By My Side is more about how Kathy sees Hendrix than about how the world does. I can already hear the complaints from the rock-geek world: "This movie tells us nothing about his musical genius! It's really just about...women!" But Hendrix the rock god, one of the most inventive and muscular of all guitarists, also had an unapologetically feminine side. It's there in his joyous, polychrome outfits, in the soft politeness of his speaking voice, in the swirling fluidity of his guitar lines, which could be as graceful as art nouveau nudes. Benjamin captures it here, too: Ridley shows him spinning out fanciful dream speeches about human beings just being, you know, cool together. Benjamin's Hendrix glows like a supernova, but circa 1967 he's just a baby supernova, his explosiveness in its infancy. He's still shy, still nervous about his acne-ridden skin and his singing voice. In so many ways, he's more fragile than the women in his life are.
As Atwell plays her, Kathy's hardly a pushover: She watches with glowering concern as Hendrix falls dangerously under the spell of Michael X (Adrian Lester), the black revolutionary who would later be convicted of murder. And she stands by as Hendrix dallies with other women; her unhappiness is meaningful to her, no matter how little it means to the greater world. As you might imagine, the real-life Etchingham, to this day a fierce protector of Hendrix's legacy, doesn't much like the movie: She posted a condemnatory review on her website, taking particular issue with a sequence in which Hendrix beats her character with a phone receiver. She claims nothing like this ever happened; when she contacted the filmmakers with her concerns, they assured her the facts had been "thoroughly researched."
The disjunction between Etchingham's claim and incidents portrayed in the movie is disturbing. After all, Etchingham was there. What's more, the camerawork and editing here is often maddeningly oblique: Ridley and cinematographer Tim Fleming favor skewed camera angles when straightforward ones would do, and the narrative is pieced together in jagged shards that aren't always a natural fit. This is a crazy-quilt patchwork of a movie, a selection of embroidered scraps held together with thread, less a true-to-life account than like something Hendrix would have worn. But Hendrix's story, or even just this small part of it, could never be told in a straight line. And it could never be told without women. Did Hendrix's women "do" enough? Jimi: All Is By My Side suggests they went beyond the call of duty. And somehow, in the middle of it, Hendrix flourished, always turning to face the sun.