In a scene from the new biopic Jimi: All Is By My Side, a relatively unknown Jimi Hendrix, talking to someone on a pay phone at the London rock club the Bag O’ Nails, jealously watches his British girlfriend leave with another man and, when she returns, beats her to the floor with the telephone receiver. The scene has ignited a firestorm of controversy: Kathy Etchingham, the woman in question, has called it a complete fabrication, and Charles R. Cross, author of Room Full of Mirrors: A Biography of Jimi Hendrix, has said the incident never happened, despite the fact that something very close to it appears in his own book. The movie’s producers have defended writer-director John Ridley (screenwriter of 12 Years a Slave), insisting that “the facts upon which he based his screenplay were independently substantiated by an outside company.” True or not, the now-notorious scene is emblematic of a movie that portrays Hendrix as a more resentful, less pleasant man than the gentle, moon-kissed mystic he presented to the cameras.
Ridley covers only one year in Hendrix’s life—from May 1966, when he was discovered by Linda Keith, Keith Richards’s girlfriend, while performing at a New York club, to June 1967, when he and his new band, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, had become the toast of swinging London and set out for Monterey, California, to appear at the pop festival that would make him a star in the U.S. Some of the most successful biopics in recent memory (The Queen, Frost/Nixon, Lincoln) have used this tactic of isolating a brief period of the subject’s life; it works particularly well in biopics of artists (Capote, Howl), whose creative turning points tend to be more illuminating of their character and work than the full arcs of their lives. Ridley has clearly chosen the right year, because in the course of it James Marshall Hendrix mutated from an unkempt, undisciplined, insecure R&B side man into the psychedelic star child of musical legend.
The particular time span also allows Ridley to pull in all the British rock icons who flocked to see this sensational new performer, and Hendrix’s encounters with them are revealing in the same way as the telephone beatdown. He may have come on as a sweet, laid-back guy, but this masked a thick streak of aggression. Having secured an introduction to Eric Clapton, Hendrix (persuasively played by André Benjamin of OutKast) shows up at a club to watch the revered Cream, finagles an invitation to jam with them, and literally blows the hallowed guitarist off the stage. When Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler, follows Clapton to the band’s dressing room, Clapton seems ready to curl up in a fetal position. Near the end of the movie, Ridley re-creates the Experience’s June 1967 performance at the Saville Theatre, celebrating the release three days earlier of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; with Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the audience, Hendrix has the balls to open with the album’s title track, which he and the band have just learned in their dressing room.
Ridley’s year-in-the-life strategy proves less rewarding when he turns his attention to Hendrix’s romantic relationships, largely because they appear to have been more romantic in the women’s eyes than in his. Linda Keith (Imogen Poots) grooms Hendrix for stardom in New York, introducing him to Chandler and urging him to take his talent more seriously. Within 24 hours of landing in London, though, Hendrix immediately latches onto Etchingham (Hayley Atwell), who gets a drink thrown in her face by Keith. Etchingham becomes Hendrix’s constant companion, but when she accidentally walks in on a recording session and Chandler bitches her out, Hendrix just shrugs. Before long he tires of her too; striding around their flat, she berates him for his indolence, and Hendrix, listening to a Bill Cosby LP, does his best to ignore her.
To really understand Hendrix, Ridley would have had to reach much farther back, to his bruising years as the impoverished eldest child of two bickering, alcoholic parents. Hendrix’s mother died when he was 15, and his father had no use for him. Jimi: All Is By My Side hints at this traumatic upbringing when Hendrix, newly arrived in London, calls his father back in Seattle and tries to impress upon him that his musical career is finally taking off. Al Hendrix—who would become a wealthy man after his son died—demands to know where Jimi stole the money that got him to the UK, and reads him the riot act for presuming to call collect. As a child, Hendrix grew so frightened by his parents’ pitched battles that he would sometimes hide in a closet; this pattern repeated into his adulthood, though instead of hiding in a closet, he hid in his music, and the walls opened out into the universe.