In 1966, Jimi Hendrix (André Benjamin), an unknown backup guitarist, is doing the pub and club circuit. The following year sees him move to London and making his mark in the music scene there. Then there's his triumph at Monterey Pop Festival, which alters the history of rock music forever. 

 

2.5
Electric lead, sloppy storytelling.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Andre Benjamin gives an utterly extraordinary performance as Jimi Hendrix in this biopic, which focuses on the two years leading up to the rock guitar genius finding fame in London during 1967’s summer of love. The pity is he didn't have a better film to support him.

Benjamin is best known as a member of the hip-hop duo Outkast, under the name André 3000, but also has several screen acting credits to his name and is destined to amass a significantly high profile filmography on the strength of his achievement here.

Anyone who grew up on Hendrix’s transcendental rock-blues, which revolutionised electric guitar playing, or has caught up with interviews with the man on YouTube, should be blown away by the uncanninesss with which Benjamin incarnates the famously shy yet charismatic musician in this conventional, flawed, poorly edited, infuriating and yet often – mainly because of Benjamin – very watchable biopic.

Benjamin has the advantage of being a virtual doppelganger of the late guitarist (bar a small mole near the base of the actor’s nose, it’s hard to tell them apart), but in most other respects he also gets the man down pat. The soft speaking voice, the coyly playful manner and winning grin are all remarkably present. This is not just a spot-on impersonation, either, but a richly accomplished performance with emotional integrity, one that not for a second feels self-conscious or mannered.

The only inaccuracy in his performance lies in his one, glaring attempt at capturing Hendrix’s singing voice, near the end of the film, when the newly formed Jimi Hendrix Experience performs to a London audience, including members of the Beatles, with a version of the Fab Four’s then spanking new album opener, 'Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band'. This is one of a number of slightly awkward moments where US writer-director John Ridley tries valiantly to get around the sticky fact he’s been denied permission to use a single note of Hendrix’s music by the late musician’s estate.

For the musical sequences, mostly set in clubs, the session guitarist Waddy Wachtel steps in with admittedly accomplished impersonations of Hendrix’s sweetly bluesy guitar style. The most effective moment from a musical viewpoint is dramatically one of the cheesiest, coming when Hendrix jams with Cream guitarist Eric Clapton, who hasn’t heard of him at this point and walks off stage after a few seconds, in shock. The incident is almost certainly invented or at least exaggerated.

If Wachtel captures something of the nature of Hendrix’s playing, without early signature tunes like 'Hey Joe' or 'Purple Haze' or the mind-expanding stratospherics of Hendrix’s live solos, there’s no sense of how transcendental his music was, nor how truly explosive he was as a performer.

Apart from Benjamin, the film’s strongest card is Imogen Poots, very impressive as his first English girlfriend, Linda Keith, a posh, smart woman who’s also dating the Rolling Stones’ Keith Richards. She introduces him to LSD and encourages him to leave the constantly jobbing Curtis Knight band and pursue solo ambitions.  (Rock star girlfriends are becoming a habit for the UK-born actor, who also played the romantic interest in 2012’s Greetings from Jeff Buckley.)

There’s one marvelous scene where Linda meets Hendrix for breakfast the night after she’s caught him sleeping with another woman and runs off with his guitar in jealousy. At a loss for words, the pair are all flashing eyes and awkward body language for an excruciating period. (Great acting is when somebody speaks nothing but says everything.)

Such a pity then, that the scenes with Hendrix’s second English girlfriend, Cathy Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), are so weak. If it’s hard to see what Hendrix sees in this mouthy, working class Northern lass, the fault is in both the script and in Atwell’s charm-free performance.

The film’s biggest transgression lies in its already notorious depiction of Hendrix viciously beating up Etchingham with a phone and putting her in hospital – a scene that has prompted the real-life woman to announce that neither this, nor anything like it, actually happened. Ridley claims he’s researched everything in the film closely, but the fact that he wasn’t there and Etchingham was probably tells us all that needs to be known.

Even if you knew nothing of Etchingham’s campaign against the film, nor anything about Hendrix’s non-violent reputation, just watching this scene and an earlier scene of the pair fighting in the street tells you something is amiss, because they so virulently contradict the portrait of a shy and gentle man the film has so convincingly established up to this point. The violence just erupts from nowhere, looking more like a filmmaker’s sensationalist gesture than a moment full of dramatic integrity. Sure, human beings are often a bundle a contradictions, but if you’re going to make a cinematic accusation as incendiary as this, you need more than just a belief in your own creative rights as a filmmaker.