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John Ridley speaks at U.S. premiere of ‘Jimi: All is By My Side’

Matthew Odam
modam@statesman.com

Filmmaker John Ridley delivered a humble and poignant acceptance speech at the Academy Awards on March 2, where he won an adapted screenplay Oscar for “12 Years a Slave.”

Ten days later the novelist-producer-writer-director appeared at the Paramount Theatre during SXSW for the U.S. premiere of his Jimi Hendrix biopic, “Jimi: All is by My Side.” In both his opening remarks and the Q&A following his original take on the tired genre, Ridley showed the same sensitivity with which he spoke at the Oscars.

Ridley has been working in Austin filming a pilot for ABC. “American Crime” details how criminal acts affect the families of victims and perpetrators. The show stars Felicity Huffman and Timothy Hutton, the latter of whom was in attendance at the Wednesday night screening, which got off to a delayed start following technical issues with the preceding film.

Ridley mentioned the project at the beginning of the screening and said the people of Austin couldn’t be nicer, friendlier, more helpful or more gracious. It wasn’t just lip-service, as evidenced by the emotion the director showed when discussing his collaborators following the screening.

Many directors have wanted to take a pass at telling the guitar legend’s story (Paul Greengrass, the Hughes Brothers), but it’s hard to imagine any of them would have taken Ridley’s approach. Instead of the expected emotional beats and pat story arc audiences have seen countless times in biopics, Ridley focused on just a slice of Hendrix’s life, with André Benjamin of Outkast starring as the guitar genius.

The movie chronicles the yearlong period from 1966-1967 when Hendrix moved from New York to London and slunk to the verge of international stardom. The film ends with Hendrix and his bandmates landing in California before the Monterrey Pop Fest, the performance that would eventually make him a star.

Ridley uses two integral female relationships to contextualize Hendrix’s maturation as an artist and his struggles as a man. British actress Imogen Poots stars as 20 year-old Linda Keith, a gorgeous model and former girlfriend of Keith Richards, who pushed Hendrix to find his own voice as an artist. Despite her young age, Keith had a maturity and wisdom that helped shape the artist. She also introduced Hendrix to LSD, which undoubtedly left its impression on the guitarist’s soul, and used her music industry connections to advance Hendrix’s nascent career as a bandleader. The two shared a love that seemed spiritual but unsustainable. As his muse, she inspired the instrumental “Sending my Love to Linda,” the song that initially ignited Ridley’s interest in making the film.

Brit Hayley Atwell plays Kathy Etchingham, Hendrix’s London girlfriend who fell in love with the guitarist on his ascent to stardom and suffered the brunt of his anger and obsession with his art. Benjamin displays the familiar Hendrix quirks (the jaw gyrations and smiles while jamming), captures his wind-blown-kite voice perfectly, and paints the picture of an accidental poet philosopher who defied genre classifications.

As Keith says of Hendrix at one point late in the film, in a tone of bemused awe, “You have an annoying way of being quite simply profound.”

The two relationships frame the portrait of Hendrix and feel lived-in and believable. That sense of authenticity came from a month-long rehearsal process in Ireland, a luxury that Poots and Ridley both acknowledged was extremely rare in the world of independent film. Ridley gave the credit to his outstanding cast, and says the generosity and commitment they showed also extended to the crew.

Glenn Freemantle (who won an Oscar for “Gravity”) served as the film’s sound editor. When Ridley discussed the sound editing process he shared an anecdote about how Freemantle, instead of using stock sounds from a sound library, went to the great trouble of recording every sound, down to the strike of a match. Ridley took a long pause before speaking through choked-back tears and said, “People don’t do that.”

It was a raw moment of gratitude and a show of the kind of heart that Ridley and his entire team put into a very human portrayal of someone we’ve always seen as larger than life.