As a huge fan of both Jimi Hendrix and André Benjamin (aka Andre 3000) I’ve been closely following this film for a while now. From writer-director John Ridley (Oscar-winning ’12 Years a Slave’ screenwriter), ‘Jimi: All Is By My Side’ charts just over a year in a man’s life. The year James Marshall Hendrix blossomed and became Jimi Hendrix. The year he spent as a young musician trying to make it on the streets and in the clubs of London with the lovers, friends, and musical collaborators who were a part of his legendary life and inspired him. Starring André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix, ‘Jimi: All Is By My Side’ features a stellar supporting cast in Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots, Burn Gorman and Ruth Negga. The film opens in the US on September 26th and in the UK from October 24th.
As an artist yourself, someone who people would consider a trailblazer and ahead of the curve, what is about Jimi Hendrix’s artistry that has appealed to you?
André Benjamin: Hendrix to me is the greatest performer that ever lived, not just in rock, but period. He’s the greatest performer and artist that walked the planet. Since he stepped on the planet, until now, there’s no one who has trumped what he has done. He threw his whole self into what he was doing. People don’t just come out of the sky and be Hendrix. Hendrix would sit on the side of the stage and watch other people do things. All the tricks Hendrix did – the teeth, the guitar – other guitarists had done that before him. Chuck Berry and all those guys. He was a kid when he was doing it, but he knew how to soak up everything and make it his own.
Nobody on this planet is an island. Everyone is influenced by somebody but Hendrix put it all together: musicianship, passion, style, sexuality. The women loved him. It was everything. As an artist, that’s what you dream of. You dream of being a great writer, you dream of being a great musician, you dream of attracting the people you want to attract. That’s what you dream of. And he was that.
This film doesn’t follow the usual biopic approach, in that it doesn’t chase things that people have seen – it’s not focused on something you can see on video. It gives life to moments that some people may know about, but none of us will ever get to be able to see. It focuses on the man moreso than the image…
André Benjamin: That was very cool. When I was 23 or 24, I got a few scripts about Hendrix, but they were true biopics. I’m glad it took this long because this approach is a little more interesting. You kind of get a slice of his life. Sometimes it’s hard to stuff someone’s whole life into two hours. I’m a fan of biopics, and I think what kind of separates this one is that… we see a lot of biopics that focus on things that we already know, and things that we’ve seen – and we want to see if they can pull them off. I think what’s important about this one is that we got to see more of the person, we get to see the more human side of Hendrix – which is really important in a lot of artist’s life. Because I’m an entertainer myself, I know how important it is and how important the people around you and the people that support you and the people that nurture you are. Hendrix definitely wouldn’t be Hendrix if it wasn’t for the people around him, and I think that’s what this movie is about – we get to see that.
It’s about looking at his life from a human perspective…
André Benjamin: Yeah. I think it connects a little bit more because we see these stars on stage, and there’s the business of making people into stars and bigger than life, but I think what resonates is seeing the human side – knowing that Hendrix was nervous, knowing that he didn’t actually like his voice, knowing that it actually took him a minute for him to get comfortable. There’s actually footage on Youtube of his first performances in Paris, this black and white footage, and he’s rolling around on stage – but it’s not as cool as it looks in Monterey (laughs). So it took him a minute to learn and to get the confidence. That’s human. People put him up here, but he had to get there first.
Can you recall your first experience with Jimi Hendrix?
André Benjamin: As a young guy I didn’t know about Hendrix, it was all rap and sports. I discovered Hendrix in my early twenties. I think I was watching a war film. I don’t know if it was ‘Platoon,’ ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ or ‘Apocalypse Now,’ but there was a helicopter scene and ‘All Along The Watchtower’ was playing, and that was the first time I’d ever heard a Hendrix song… there was these crazy solos, and from that point on I was a Hendrix fan. And then when I picked up the guitar myself, I wanted to know about other African-Americans that were playing. It’s funny, as a kid I just knew Jimi as this wild black man that nobody understood, that’s all you really knew. We didn’t know his music really, but we knew of his image.
What is your guitar playing like, and how did you find acting that out in the film? I understand you’re right handed, while Jimi played left handed….
André Benjamin: Oh man, I’m a shit guitarist (laughs). I’m a right handed guitarist, but I’m a closet guitarist, I only play at home. I’m more of a punk guitarist than anything, I play loud and fast. But when we were preparing to make the movie, we thought we could do it right handed and then flip the image, so that I could look as comfortable as possible. But it would be way to 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. I remember having a conversation with John Ridley on the phone before we left to go to Ireland, and I was struggling (laughs). But it worked out.
I think any guitarist would agree, but Jimi is probably the most comfortable looking guitarist in the world. Most guitarists, even if they are great, they look like they’re doing a task, they look like they’re working. Jimi never looked like he was working, he always made it look like it was an extra hand. I guess the confidence I didn’t have in doing it left handed was about doing something my motor skills are not used to doing, and I also have to look like I’ve been doing it all my life, and then I have to look like Jimi Hendrix while doing it…. with that in mind, the confidence was hard (laughs). It threw me off, but John was a big help.
Aside from learning how to play left handed, you spent a few intensive months preparing before filming started. What was that time like, and how did your own career in music help your portrayal in any way?
André Benjamin: Yeah. The research entailed guitar practice, weight training, weight loss, voice coaching. Just sitting and talking with John. John was more interested in our conversation about scenes. We would go back and forth about what each scene meant. I did a lot of research. As a music artist I read about Hendrix years before, so I knew him in a way. Or I thought I knew him. There were way more things I didn’t know. I did a lot of reading. It helped put in my mind what Hendrix may have said or what may have felt at a certain time. Certain expressions. I listened to hours of interviews. I watched films; watched his mannerisms. It starts off as a mimic, but the more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you. It was a lot of repetition, and hopefully it’s something people can believe in when watching the film.
I can’t say that I’m spiritually connected to him or anything like that. I just read a lot, done lots of research – and yeah, there’s certain crossing points in our careers that I could feel. 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 as an artist, I know what it’s like to fully throw yourself into music, and I know what it’s like to want to look cool while you’re doing it. So, there are points like that helped for sure.
‘Jimi: All Is By My Side’ covers a year in Hendrix’s life from 1966-67, but was there a sort of transformative year for you in your own artistic endeavors?
André Benjamin: When you’re in it, you don’t really know (laughs). I didn’t at least! I know from being an entertainer for 20 years, I know how people approach me, I know how people write about me, I know what people often say when they see me on the street. They put you up here, but the whole time I know that I’m the kid who’s doing the music that I love doing – I’m not thinking of being “up here”…. that’s how people perceive you, you know? I can’t put a date on it (laughs), but when you’re in it you can’t really know what’s going on. I didn’t, I was just trying to make music, really.