André Benjamin on Jimi: All Is By My Side
By Moya Nkruma
Internationally known as one half of the famed hip-hop duo Outkast, ASCAP member André “3000” Benjamin stars as Jimi Hendrix in the revealing biopic Jimi: All Is by My Side, from Academy Award-winning writer-director John Ridley (12 Years a Slave). Covering a year in Hendrix’s life from 1966-67, from his start as an unknown backup guitarist in New York’s Cheetah Club to making his mark in London’s music scene up until his Monterey Pop triumph, the film presents an intimate portrait of the sensitive young musician on the verge of becoming a rock legend.
On September 21st, I had the pleasure of participating in a press conference that Benjamin and Ridley held at the SLS Hotel in Beverly Hills, CA. As you’ll read in the below excerpts from the conference, they spoke candidly about their artistic and technical journeys toward the realization of the film. As interpreted by Ridley and Benjamin, not only do we get to experience the artistic development of the musical genius that is Jimi Hendrix, but also the personal struggles of a man who wants to be great.
ASCAP: Portraying a man as complex as Jimi, did you find, throughout your workshop process with John and the rest of the cast, that you were able to ease into the role? What was the journey like?
André Benjamin: It was a process that I think you start off mimicking. You’re listening to tape, you’re watching his movements, you’re watching some of the slang that he may use. So, it starts off as a mimic but the more you do it, the more it kind of becomes a part of you. One of the best things that I thought John, the director, could do was have me stay in it. Sometimes when we weren’t even on set, it would just be a normal day going through scenes and just hanging around. He wanted to hear Hendrix and I think that helped the naturalness of it. I think the more you do it, the more it starts to bleed into your own self, and then you find this meeting point. I think that once you connect to your real self and then this mimic meeting point, hopefully, at that point we give this portrayal that you all can believe in. It’s really just repetition and time. Just staying in it.
Variety Latino: It seems like we are in an era where the biopic is more popular than ever. So I wonder, what do you hope that audiences will take away from All Is By My Side that really stands out from all the other offerings right now?
AB: I’m a fan of biopics. I know [when] we see a lot of biopics, it’s a telling of images and things we’ve already seen that we know of an artist, and we just try to see if they can pull it off. I think what’s important about this one is, we got to see more of the person, the human side, of Hendrix, which is really important in a lot of artists’ lives. And because I’m an entertainer myself, I know how important that is – people around you, the people that support you, the people that nurture you. I think that Hendrix definitely wouldn’t be Hendrix if it weren’t for the people around him.
John Ridley: I would agree with André. In order for a film to be relevant, it’s got to be informative, and the opportunity to not just chase things that people have seen. I mean, there have been great performances that are out there, whether it’s Monterey, whether it’s Woodstock, they’re seminal. But the reality is, you’re chasing one of the greats of all time. So I think we got to a point in putting this together where we said, “We can do something that you can see on DVD or has been represented in other films, and quite frankly, has been represented in commercials selling cars. We’ve done it forty-four times, we can do it for a forty-fifth and hope maybe we get it right. Or we can give life to moments like Jimi and Eric Clapton at the Polytechnic or the Saville Theatre performance that some people may know about, but none of us will ever get the opportunity to see.” So I think that elevated the game, because we were able to do something that was a little bit liberating, but there was a sense that if we are gonna do it, we’ve really got to be honorific to the spirit of what was going on at that time.
AB: I think it connects a little more, too, because we see these stars on stage, and that’s the business in making people into stars, making them bigger than life. But I think what resonates with a human is seeing the human side of another human. Knowing that Hendrix was nervous, knowing that he didn’t like his voice, knowing that it actually took him a minute for him to get comfortable. There’s actually footage on YouTube, his first performances in Paris, it’s black and white footage. He’s rolling around on stage, but it’s not as cool as it looks at Monterey. So it took him a minute to learn and get the confidence. So I think as humans, we’d like to see “Yeah, well, he’s just like me.” We put him up here, but he had to get there first.
Unknown Questioner: This film takes a slice of Jimi’s life from the year he became famous, basically, when he broke through. I’m wondering for each of you, was there that year for you where, you know, January 1st you were unknown, [then] December 31st, you were a star or famous director?
JR: ::laughs:: I think I’m waiting for that year. ::laughs:: It may be today! I think André’s experience is probably different than mine.
AB: Once again, this answer will speak to the film. When you’re in it, and approaching the Jimi role, it’s kind of like, “What’s the human side?” Because I know, from being an entertainer for 20 years, how people approach me, I know what people write about me, I know when they see me on the street, what they say, and they put you up here. But the whole time, I just know I’m just the kid doing the music thing I love doing, and I’m not thinking [about that]. This is just how people perceive you. I can look back now and go, “Whoa, that was a few great years,” because it’s 20 years later. But when you’re in it, you don’t really know what’s going on so I can’t really pinpoint a date.
JR: I’ve been very, very blessed over the last couple years and anything that has become apparent to me is that the blessings that I have, have a whole more lot to do with people not named John Ridley than John Ridley. The thing that resonated for me, we had certainly thought of Hendrix and his artistry and his greatness, but at 24-years-old, if he wasn’t sure where he should go or what he should do, he’d played with Ike and Tina, the Isley Brothers, Little Richard, and never fit in. And yet there was a core group of individuals – Linda, Chas, Kathy, Noel, Mitch – that all saw something in him that sometimes, we don’t see in ourselves. And for me, that was a big deal in this film, to not just take a year and say, “Well, this year was transformative because he became famous.” Because other people outside, the audiences, discovered that. There’s a line in the film that I really love: “The things that you love, they stay with you, whether you want them to or not.” I think those relationships that I really wanted to excavate within telling the story.
Universal Pictures: I guess for both of you, a really simple question. Why did you want to make a film about Jimi Hendrix? Why Jimi Hendrix?
AB: I think John should start, ‘cause [he] actually came to me about it. I’ve been approached when I was younger about it but I think, at that time, I was just a young guy excited about Jimi Hendrix.
JR: I actually didn’t know at the time that André had been approached before. And I sort of felt dumb after that because I felt like you’re just going to a guy because he may be the obvious choice. As I said, there were things I learned about André that made him, at least in my opinion, a kindred spirit to it. But to me, I think the reason the vast majority [of us] are even here, is because at some point we can say we’re a Hendrix fan in some regard. For the music, for what he represented, for the post-racial nature that he brought to music.
But honestly, it started with me with a Hendrix rarity that I heard one night. It was a song that had a drive and an emotion and a feeling that even for Hendrix music was something I had not felt before. The title of the song was “Sending My Love to Linda.” And we started to search more and look more and talk to people and did some pieces for NPR about that song in that era. And as I said before, there was just so much information in there that was relevant in a way that I was unfamiliar with. And I really felt that if there was a way to tell the story that people could feel the emotion that I felt when I was hearing that song, then it would be worthwhile. I felt like I wasn’t just recycling things that people knew about or putting things up because you could, but really trying to bring up an emotion that was real and particular, at least for me, even if it was a slightly romanticized version of it.
AB: And I had never heard the song before until John pointed it out to me. And I’m a huge Hendrix fan so I was kind of geeked about it.
Collider: Can you talk about the first exposure you had to Jimi Hendrix and his music and what impression it made when you first heard someone like that?
AB: For me, it was in a film. As a young guy, I didn’t know about Hendrix. I was all into rap and sports. So I discovered Hendrix maybe in my early twenties. I think I was watching a war film – I don’t know if it wasPlatoon, Full Metal Jacket or Apocalypse Now – but it was a helicopter scene and “All Along the Watchtower” was playing and that was the first time I had ever heard a Hendrix song. It was these crazy solos, and from that point on I was a Hendrix fan. And once I picked up the guitar myself, I wanted to know of other African-Americans that were playing, and of course Jimi came across. And it’s funny, as a kid, you just knew Jimi as this “Wow, black man that nobody understood.” You didn’t know his music really, you just knew of this image of a dude.
JR: My first experience was actually a book that I got out of the library. And in retrospect, my exposure was more knowledge-based and word-based and kind of deep. And later, I started hearing his music and it was far more mature than I was. But later, when the reissues of CDs started coming out and I heard – I think the first album my mom got me was one of these unauthorized greatest hits collection. And the songs were all fine, they were all there, but it was this level of maturity that I wasn’t quite commiserating with. But later when the reissues came out I heard Axis: Bold as Love as an album in its entirety. And I started reading [Hendrix biography] Electric Gypsy and put more of the person with the music and the history. It was just a confluence of thought and sound that sent me in another direction. But it was probably a little backwards than most people; they hear the music and have an amazing emotional response. To me, it was these stories about this individual and then later, getting myself to a level where I could actually appreciate the depth of the music.
Legendary ASCAP session guitarist and songwriter Waddy Wachtel
composed and performed original music in Jimi: All is By My Side.
Listen to his favorite guitarists on this Rdio playlist.
KCRW: André, you’re a guitarist yourself. One of the most impressive parts of the film was watching your fingers…we’re not just talking about the behind the head playing or with the teeth. This was that year when he was growing some, saying “I got something special to say.” [The film] could have very well been you playing those parts, and I wondered how long have you been playing those riffs?
AB: Honestly, I’m a right-handed guitarist but I’m a closet player. I’m a punk player more than anything, so it’s just loud and fast, but when we were preparing to make the movie, we thought that we could do it right-handed and then flip the image so I could look as comfortable as possible. But it would be way too expensive to shoot it that way, so we had to decide to go with the left-handed gig, and I was really not confident in it at all. I remember having a conversation on the phone a couple of days before we left…
JR: It was about two days before we were going to start shooting. André was like, “Man, I don’t know if I can do this.” But to me, the funny thing was he had already worked for months and rehearsed it left-handed, and I actually had video of shooting him left-handed, so I had this high degree of confidence. What we did early on [was work with ] Andrew Rollins, who was André’s guitar coach, and we just picked sections of the song and storyboarded it early. “Okay, this is the first time we see it, so we’re gonna take this section and that section and not try to emulate it over the entire song, really break it down and do these parts. As you say, it was just repetition, repetition, repetition and then getting the part where André could take his own charisma as a performer and someone who has been on stage his entire life and put it into it. It wasn’t about flipping the frames, about CGI. I really believed that in the end doing it live.... everybody is forced to do it right the first time. I would say “Let’s get it later in post.” In the end, it was André’s call, and he did it.
AB: And just to say another thing about the left hand thing….and I think any guitarist would agree, Jimi is probably the most comfortable looking guitarist in the world. Most guitarists, even if they’re great, they look like they’re doing a task or like they’re working. Jimi never looked like he was working…the confidence that I didn’t have in doing it left-handed was “Okay, I am actually doing something that my motor skills are not used to doing, and I have to look like Jimi Hendrix doing it. The confidence was just gone, and if you know, left-handed anything is just horrible. It just throws you off! John said, “Well, the way we will shoot it, you will be okay.
JR: What I say about the project is that I asked André to do two things: he had to turn water into wine, and do it with his left hand. If he could do that, we would have a film. And he somehow managed to pull it off.
Blackfilm.com: When you were doing your research on Hendrix, what did you find out that surprised you?
AB: Two things, actually. Hendrix’s confidence in his playing, and that he was pretty ballsy. I’ve heard interviews where he was kinda s**t-talkin’, you know, about other players. Not putting them down, but basically talking about his skill. Also, his remorse. Of course you’ll see it in the film, where Hendrix has to go on stage and play with Clapton. Later on there’s an interview where Hendrix says, “Aww, man, I hate that that actually happened. I love Clapton and I really loved his playing. I would love to play with him everyday but I knew at that point it came down to a Me or Him. I knew walking onto the stage, I would have to burn him to make it.” In the interview, he’s like, “Oh, I feel so bad about it but I had to do it.”
AB: You get to see that he’s human too. There’s another great thing that I think kids should hear. Everyone knows him as this drug addict kinda guy, but there’s an interview where Hendrix says, “I used to think that I was built to take all of these drugs, that I was made to do this…I know now that I have taken entirely too many drugs.” It’s just another side of somebody that you think is just high all the time and don’t give a f**k, you know?
Red Bull Bulletin: As an artist and entertainer with your own artistic philosophy, what’s it like to fully transcend into another musician’s character? Do you associate with his spiritual and artistic philosophies?
AB: It was scary, you know. People ask me what is it like to find out the essence of Hendrix, and I don’t know if I actually nailed it. I just knew that John said “Whatever you do, just own it.” We have to be honest, we’re doing trickery here. I would never be Hendrix, but John said “[Give] me your interpretation of Hendrix. Don’t give me this side-show kind of thing. Just give me YOUR Hendrix and give me the best one you can do.” I just tried my best. I can’t say that I am on a level with Hendrix. I can’t say that I’m spiritually connected to him or any of that kind of stuff. I just read as much as I could read and did as much research as possible.
Yeah, there are certain crossing points in our careers that I feel like we would agree on certain things. I know what it’s like to be a nervous artist. I know what it’s like to grow as an artist. I know what it’s like to have freedom in what you are doing. I know what it’s like to fully throw yourself into the music. I know what’s it like to want to look cool while you’re doing it. So, there are points that we can agree on but I know him in that way. I know him as much as y’all know him. I just read probably a little bit more than you did to get into the role.
Jimi: All Is By My Side was released to select theaters nationwide on September 26th, 2014. Find out where to see it at www.jimiallisbymyside.com.