Three or four days ago I was grappling with a screening conflict — John Ridley‘s All Is By My Side (a.k.a., the year in the life of Jimi Hendrix film with Andre Benjamin/Andre 3000 as the late groundbreaking musician) or Daniel Schecter‘s Life of Crime, the period kidnapping drama based on Elmore Leonard‘s The Switch. I compromised by deciding to catch the first 40% of All Is By My Side before Life of Crime began, but two or three minutes after settling into the Hendrix I was having doubts about this strategy because of Benjamin’s dead-on performance. It was obvious he’d captured Hendrix’s manner, vibe, voice…that gentleness, that ambivalent but spiritually directed mood-trip thing. Plus I was feeling a certain comfort with Ridley’s script and direction. I wasn’t knocked flat but I was saying to myself, “This kind of works…yeah.”
(l.) Musical-cosmic revolutionary Jimi Hendrix; ((r.) Andre Benjamin (a.k.a. Andre 3000) as Hendrix in John Ridley‘s All Is By My Side.
Dumbshit that I sometimes am, I bailed on the Hendrix and went over to Life of Crime, which turned out to be mildly agreeable and lightly amusing (it follows the Leonard theme of the “bad guys” always being a little bit slow and/or deluded) but nothing to jump up and down about. So eff me — I should have listened to my instincts and covered Life of Crime down the road.
But right away I noticed one thing that felt slightly “off” about Benjamin and one thing that…well, I shouldn’t say anything without having seen the entire film but nobody has written about it so far and I’m guessing isn’t there so I’ll get into it a bit. Jimi Hendrix (particularly during the mid ’66 to spring of ’67 period that the film covers) wasn’t just about his mad/wild/startling/amazing guitar-playing and the stunts he did for attention’s sake (playing with his teeth, lighting his Fender Stratocaster on fire). The Hendrix thing was largely if not primarily about the beautiful crossover metaphor of a serene and beatific and willowy black dude delivering sounds and lyrics that heralded (as well as indicated and even illustrated to some extent) the blooming ’66-to-’67 psychedelic consciousness, which at the time was almost exclusively an avant-garde, semi-educated Zen/Bhagavad Gita/Alan Watts white-guy thing.
Hendrix was about the transformative spiritual revolution that was happening back then — about cutting-edge pop music being a path or doorway to the mystical. He was, in fact, at the forefront of this movement (as were the Beatles, The Doors, Donovan and several others.) “Not necessarily stoned but beautiful” — Hendrix really knew what that meant. It’s incredibly difficult to convey spiritual states of being in any dramatic form so I wouldn’t be surprised if All Is By My Side ducks this aspect of Hendrix’s life (which was HUGE at the time) altogether. I’ll know when I see the whole film.
The other thing that didn’t feel right was…I’m almost afraid to say this because I know what the p.c. brownshirts are going to say. But here goes anyway. It is not dismissive or racist to note that not every African American has the exact same skin shade, and it is (or should be) okay for white guys to acknowledge this. Jimi Hendrix was obviously light-skinned. Mocha cappucino with extra cream, or just a bit lighter than Barack Obama. Benjamin is what I would call medium milk chocolate, and I’m sorry but he obviously doesn’t resemble Hendrix in this respect. On top of which the shadowy lighting in some portions of Ridley’s film accentuates this contrast.
I remember reading a late 1980s profile of Today host Bryant Gumbel (possibly in Rolling Stone?) that hinted/suggested Gumbel used skin-lightening makeup for his on-air appearances, and it hit me that if Ridley had the balls-out determination to get it 100% right, he would have manned up and talked to Benjamin about doing a Gumbel. But he didn’t, perhaps because he knew white guys in the audience aren’t supposed to notice (much less comment upon) skin shades because it makes them sound like Michael Fassbender in 12 Years A Slave. I mentioned this observation about Benjamin to a prominent film critic in the lobby of the Scotiaplex three or four days ago and he said “I didn’t notice that.” Bullshit — he didn’t want to “notice that” (i.e., he didn’t want to admit it to me) because it’s trouble to even flirt with such observations.
But Benjamin is so amazingly good as Hendrix performance-wise that it’s a shame he and Ridley didn’t go the extra half-mile. It’s just a performance — it’s just make-up and make-believe. An actor does whatever he or she can to accurately inhabit the appearance and the spirit of the real-life person that he/she is playing.
“I believed in myself more than anything. And, I suppose in a way, that’s also believing in God. If there is a God and He made you, then if you believe in yourself, you’re also believing in Him. That doesn’t mean you’ve got to believe in heaven and hell and all that stuff. But it does mean that’s what you are and what you do is your religion. When I get up on stage…well, that’s my whole life. That’s my religion. My music is electric church music. If by ‘church’ you mean ‘religion’, I am electric religion.” — Jimi Hendrix.