To say that John Ridley has built his career on his own terms is an understatement. His earliest work in Hollywood included writing episodes of Martin and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and he scored a major coup when Oliver Stone chose to adapt his novel Stray Dogs into the 1997 feature U Turn, which Ridley also wrote.
What should have been another major success followed. Ridley’s screenplay for the film that became Three Kings was purchased by Warner Brothers, who turned the project over to David O. Russell–but Russell rewrote the script extensively, without Ridley’s input, and Ridley fought the studio to earn a “story by” credit on the final project.
Ridley’s career has been a roller coaster of innovation and controversy through nearly two decades: He created one of the earliest examples of a web series with 1999’s Undercover Brother, more than half a decade before the advent of YouTube (the series’ popularity led to a 2002 feature film, co-written and executive produced by Ridley, starring Eddie Griffin and Dave Chappelle); he found himself writing superhero comics for DC imprint Wildstorm in the mid-00’s; he won an Oscar for his screenplay for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, amid rumors of a feud between him and McQueen. Alongside the success of 12 Years A Slave, meanwhile, Ridley’s long-gestating Jimi Hendrix biopic, All Is By My Side, attracted controversy of its own–the Hendrix estate refused to license any of his music to the picture, and friends of the musician claim that parts of it are entirely speculative.
All of which is to say that John Ridley is something of an iconoclast. This might help explain what attracted the screenwriter–and, with All Is By My Side, director–to the story of Jimi Hendrix, and to the film’s star, Andre Benjamin of Outkast. So how did Ridley, as a singular artist, go about making a movie about a singular artist?
Everyone’s life is a whole lot more than a movie, and the compression that goes into most biopics–especially music biopics–tends to make the result flat and formulaic: The star is discovered, people don’t believe in him, the star craters, and then comes back better than ever. It’s why Ray and Walk The Line are essentially identical films. But All Is By My Side avoids that pitfall by only talking about a very short period of Hendrix’s life.
“People know something about the tragic end,” Ridley says. “But I didn’t want a film where people would come to it and go, ‘When’s it going to happen?’ I wanted something that was a little upbeat and hopeful, that people could then go off and discover or rediscover the music that we know. Within that year-long time period, it gave us access to music that was historically accurate, that most people don’t understand about his bridging folk, blues, and R&B, and putting all of that together with a rock sound.”
Ultimately, the story that Ridley told was one that hadn’t been told before about Hendrix–and that’s no mean feat, given the amount of cultural real estate that he occupies, even 44 years after his death.
“We can spend our lives chasing Monterey [Pop Festival], chasing Woodstock,” Ridley explains. “People have literally already done that on film, and it’s incredibly hard to emulate, because he’s Jimi Hendrix. But to take a moment in lore and make it real, and to have people walk away going, ‘Oh, that was the moment,’ that’s really pretty special.”
Of course, it also helped that the period Ridley chose to focus on was a period during which Hendrix’s repertoire was based on pre-existing material, rather than the songs that would make him famous–since the Hendrix estate didn’t give Ridley access to his music. “It worked as a story, it worked as a narrative, and it worked in terms of what we had access to musically,” Ridley admits. But looking for inspiration in the moments that pre-date “Foxy Lady,” “Fire,” and “Purple Haze” also opened Ridley up to an entirely new perspective on Hendrix.
“A few years ago, I was on the Internet, in the early days of YouTube, and I was just looking for Hendrix songs, and some rarities popped up,” Ridley recalls. “One of them was this studio track, and it was kind of a busted take, and a busted take, and a busted take. And I was listening to it, and honestly, it got to the point where I was like, ‘Why am I listening to this? There’s nothing here.’ And then on the fifth take, the song just takes off. And even for Hendrix, the piece was searing. It was really trying to say something. And I looked down at the title and it was ‘Sending My Love To Linda.’ And I’m like, ‘Who’s Linda?’”
Putting a script together that tells the story of Hendrix’s early days in Greenwich Village, and his subsequent journey overseas to London–while keeping the focus on his friendship with Linda Keith and keeping her role in his success prominent, rather than bypassing her for the more famous Chas Chandler, whom she introduced Hendrix to–is an impressive feat in itself, but Ridley isn’t just the writer of All Is By My Side, he’s also the director. And that meant finding the right cast to tell the story, too.
“For me, naturally, the story worked. But then you add in Andre Benjamin, and all of a sudden it goes beyond working,” Ridley says of his film’s star. “Then Imogen Poots, then Haley Atwell, and their chemistry. That’s not something that . . . you can write it on the page, but the actors find it.”
Benjamin is a fascinating choice to play Hendrix. The time period that All Is By My Side explores takes place when Hendrix was in his early-to-mid twenties, while Benjamin will be 40 next year. But Ridley wanted to find someone who could capture particular qualities that he saw in Hendrix, and made the decision to cast someone who might not pull off a straight impersonation.
“It was never going to be a Vegas lounge version of Jimi, and I can’t say enough about how much work he put into this before we even got on set for the first day,” Ridley says. “The voice, the way he walked–and then the guitar-playing and those elements. Andre came at it to work, but at the same time, just as a person he has so much charisma and charm, and we wanted that. We did not want to do the dour, downbeat, rock and roll cliche spiral to the bitter end. Jimi had a light and a life to him that captivated people, and that’s the reality. That’s the reality with any people who end up stars, because they have star quality. So once Andre was on board and we could see his own energy, that matched what I wanted to do and the story I wanted to tell.”