John Ridley, Director & Writer, Jimi: All is By My Side

A novelist, screenwriter and journalist best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay adaptation of 12 Years a Slave, John Ridley steps behind the camera for Jimi: All is By My Side, a film starring Andre Benjamin as the late rock legend. Shunning the usual life-on-fast-forward clich├ęs of most bio-pics about musicians, Ridley instead chose to focus on one year of Hendrix’s life, from his gigging days

in New York to the journey to London that began his career up until just before the festival at Monterey that made him a star.  We spoke with Ridley via phone about his choices, his relationship with Hendrix’s music, and what it was like to not have to crawl past the gatekeepers of the Hendrix legacy.

About: This all started when you heard a Hendrix track called “Send My Love to Linda,” like a reverse Rosebud. You wanted to find out who the Linda in the song was …

Ridley: You’re right; I was up late writing one night, and I heard this song, and for me, as a listener, it was just incredibly powerful, it was emotive, and if we’re talking about Hendrix pieces, this was maybe one of the most emotive ones I had ever heard. So that says a lot, and it was great to go back and research, because I thought of myself as a Hendrix fan, and I didn’t know these things. So I thought “If I can translate what I felt and hear in that song to a larger audience, there would probably be really something there

for them to latch on to emotionally.” And I think that’s what it’s about: People can, and should, as fans, go out and digest as much Hendrix music as possible — but I think in cinema, where you’re not just dealing with sound but you’re dealing with images, you’re dealing with moments, you’re dealing with giving life to things that other people weren’t allowed to witness — there’s a totality to it, and I would hope we could put an emotional velocity into it; I would say the performances certainly worked in that regard — I think the actors we have are stellar.

There’s the old saying that “History is written by the winners.” And as part of that,bio-pics about musicians are usually written by the people who hold the rights to the songs. When did you have to make the tactical choice to not use any of Mr. Hendrix’s compositions and instead pieces of music that other people had written?

Well, the nice thing is that I never had to make that decision; I knew, certainly, early on, people like Paul Greengrass and The Hughes Brothers had tried to make  a Hendrix movie and felt the divide between what they wanted to do and what the owners of the Hendrix intellectual property wanted to do. So I really had no illusion — artists like that, who have a much deeper and richer and better resume than I probably will ever have weren’t able to bridge that divide and do it. There was a time when this story presented itself to me — through stories, and bits of research — and I always felt like it had its own emotional velocity, and drive, and chemistry to it. And there were elements to it, for me, where if the story was going to be at all relevant, that would be the form of it. And there were so many things about Jimi –even for someone who was a Hendrix fan, like me — that I just didn’t know. So, I think with making this film, we’ve seen the version of any number of bio-pics where the (filmmakers) ahd access to artifacts and intellectual property, and the story just didn’t hold up. And to me there were films like Sid and Nancy where I don’t like punk music and I don’t like to hang out with druggies a lot, but there was an internal drive to that story in the performance and about the people and about connectivity that took it to a place where it didn’t need to be about punk music. So to me it was never a hard choice between one or the other — if you don’t have a performance that sustains itself, a bio-pic or a action film or science-fiction film, then you can throw everything you can at the screen and  it doesn’t mean it’s going to be engaging to people; on the other hand, if you have a story that you really feel passionately about, then hopefully, you can find a way to engage the audience without having to have certain artifacts that fulfill their own limited expectations of what the film is going to be that they’re already familiar with.

It’s not just a moving “Greatest Hits” record, which so many bio-pics become. 

Yeah, I think you make a really good point. (Laughs) I mean, you put it in a very nice way with the idea of a ‘Greatest Hits” record — and to extend that musical metaphor, there are people who just love to buy Greatest Hits records and play the same songs over and over again — and then there are people who love the album cuts, and go a little more deeply. And I think that audiences, particularly in the last few years, have matured, where they like stories, or at least appreciate stories, that try to go a little bit deeper into character. It’s not just music bio-pics; look at 42, the story about Jackie Robinson, that was just about his rookie year; look at Lincoln, which looked at the man through the passage of the Emancipation Proclamation. For me,  those stories, I thought they were powerful because they very focused — and they were focused on looking at the subject matter through such a narrow lens, as opposed to being sprawl and just throwing things at the wall to see what sticks.

Or worse, a Power Point presentation of the data points: “First hit single; first tour; first fight …”

Yes. We click through it, we click through it, we click through it — and then we get to the unfortunate untimely end people are expecting. And for me, that was another thing — to have a story that ended on an upbeat note, and it wasn’t just people looking at their watches, so to speak, and waiting for a tragic end. I really liked that you could leave the story wanting more, discovering more, and it could be about more and it was more about being upbeat and inspirational instead of tragic.

The other great thing about Mr. Benjamin’s performance isn’t the physical resemblance, or the left-handed guitar playing; it’s how he embodies this kind of passionate petulance in Mr. Hendrix, this passive-active aggression, where he disengages from things as a strategy; I’m wondering what it was like to write and find that side of the character.

I really enjoyed it, because to me in that regard he was sort of an atypical hero; generally, in the heroic tales, you have this person who wants to go out and take over the world, or slay dragons or what have you. And I liked that Jimi was never demonstrative of that whole “I want to be the greatest rock star, the greatest guitar player in the world …” thing; he had a particular style and things that he wanted to do and he didn’t care where he did  them. But there other people saw things in him that were there, that they had to sort of make him aware of this, for his opinion of himself. and that’s one of the great things about having Imogen (Poots) in this film and having a smaller film — you don’t have to lock yourself into traditional narrative, where you have to be very declarative up front and you have a hero who drives all the way through; it can be more about nuance of emotion, of sensitivity, about worldview — for me, it was fun to write, but then it became challenging, in that how do you get someone who has the ability to play those things and  make them interesting. I think that what was in Andre was very much in his nature. I think he’s very much a kindred spirit to Hendrix, in the sense that he love music, and he’s very passionate about his artistry — not so much going out there and declaring himself to be great, but creating that which was worth other people being appreciative of. That for me is the great bridge there.