Year in the life of Hendrix

Oscar winner John Ridley brings guitarist biopic to help launch SIFF

craig.sailor@thenewstribune.comMay 9, 2014 

Ridley

John Ridley is a busy man. He’s a novelist, playwright, director, producer and the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “12 Years A Slave.”

But he’s making time next week to attend the launch of this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, screening his latest film, a biopic on Jimi Hendrix.

“Jimi: All is by my side,” which Ridley wrote and directed, will play at the opening gala Thursday. The film stars Outkast’s Andre Benjamin as the Seattle-born Hendrix. It chronicles the key year in Hendrix’s life when he was championed by Linda Keith, the girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, and hooked up with manager Chas Chandler.

The News Tribune caught up with Ridley via phone.

Question: How has “12 Years A Slave” changed your life?

Answer: Working with a story like Solomon’s and being able to travel around the world with it and have people react to it — that was very special. The award is wonderful but … being reminded that sometimes what we do is a little bit more than entertainment — that was special.

Q: What drives you to work in so many different forms of storytelling?

A: Sometimes it’s because I don’t want people to think I can only tell one kind of story. We all like to test ourselves. Whether it’s novels or television or film, I think all of them have their inherent challenges and all of them have their inherent rewards.

Q: How did you get interested in telling Jimi Hendrix’s story?

A: I think we’re all born Hendrix fans. We just don’t know it until we hear his music for the first time. One day, years ago, I was listening to some Hendrix rarities on the Internet and there was a song that popped up that I had never heard before: “Sending My Love to Linda.” Even for Jimi, who probably remains the most emotive and highly skilled interpretive guitarist in the history of music, this was a song that was richer and went deeper than anything I had previously heard. I said, “Who is Linda?”

Q: Who is Linda?

A: I started to research Linda and how she became connected to Jimi and became a champion of his going to London and all of these things that had not been deeply excavated: How he came to Chas, how he came to Noel (Redding, bassist) and Mitch (Mitchell, drummer). I thought, here’s a story with a very finite amount of time to it — specifically about one year. This is a story in itself.

Q: What was your source material?

A: Everything and anything. From public records to personal interviews I did. I had an opportunity to speak with Linda Keith. I did a piece for NPR (on Hendrix). It turned out so well, I thought, “This could work as a film.”

Q: Did you have any assistance from our local, number one Hendrix fan, Paul Allen?

A: No. He certainly has the ability to build up an amazing collection of Hendrix artifacts. But the challenges in making a small, indie film makes a film standout. You focus on the story, the characters, things that drive people emotionally. We didn’t have a lot financially, but we had a lot with the story. There’s an intimacy to this film.

Q: I understand you weren’t able to obtain the rights to Jimi’s music from his estate. What happened there?

A: I will say this, having worked in Hollywood a lot, anytime you deal with an entity that’s been entrusted with someone’s estate or intellectual property, there’s a level of difficulty because that is their job — to protect that property. Dealing with them has been no different than dealing with any other company that I’ve had to deal with.

Q: What will we hear instead?

A: There is music that is historically accurate, that Jimi played, that was of and in the era, that was available to us. In using that music, it’s truthful. We could tell a story that’s musically honest and true.

Q: What did Andre Benjamin do to prepare for the film?

A: His work ethic was amazing. He wasn’t a guy who said, “Yeah, I look like Jimi, I’ll drop in on Tuesday and fly out on Thursday.” He worked with me in every regard, from the script to characterization to dialog coaching to losing weight. He was in great shape but at that time Jimi was tight, lean — almost emaciated. Andre lost a lot of weight. He learned to play the guitar upside down and left handed. It was seven and a half months that this gentleman worked on this film. He couldn’t do a Las Vegas lounge act of Jimi. He was either going to do it correctly or not do it at all. I asked him to change water into wine and I asked him to do it left-handed.

SIFF at a glance

The Seattle International Film Festival has a lot of superlatives attached to it. It’s America’s largest and most attended. And, at age 40, it’s one of the country’s oldest film festivals. It has a year-round presence, permanent theaters (SIFF Cinema Uptown and SIFF Film Center) and a dedicated staff.

For this year’s festival, which opens on Thursday, SIFF has a bulging schedule of high-profile films, actors, directors and other cinema luminaries.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, the star of this year’s Oscar-winning best picture, “12 Years A Slave,” will receive an award as will actress Laura Dern.

Richard Linklater, the filmmaker who burst on to the scene in 1990 with “Slacker,” will present “Boyhood.” Linklater shot the narrative feature over 12 years. Viewers will watch a boy literally grow up during the course of the movie.

Seattle native Quincy Jones will receive a lifetime achievement award at the screening of the documentary, “Keep on Keepin’ On.”

The festival concludes June 8 with Charlie McDowell’s surreal romantic comedy “The One I Love,” starring Elisabeth Moss and Mark Duplass.

Of the 440 films that SIFF is screening, 44 are world debuts, 30 are North American premieres, and 14 are U.S. premieres.

For more information, go to siff.net/festival-2014.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@ thenewstribune.com craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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