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Portrait of Jimi Hendrix from Jan. 1, 1967. (KIPPA/ANP)
Portrait of Jimi Hendrix from Jan. 1, 1967. (KIPPA/ANP)

What you'll learn from watching the new Jimi Hendrix biopic Add to ...

The Jimi Hendrix biopic All Is By My Side stars rapper André Benjamin as the mind-blowing, blue-warping guitarist, and covers the musician’s down-and-out days in New York and his fruitful move to London in 1966. We spoke to director John Ridley about a soulful film which seeks a distribution deal following its world premiere at TIFF this past weekend.

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All Is By My Side is “based on a true story.” I’m no Hendrix scholar, but the film didn’t seem to be all that loose with the facts. How much liberty was taken?

Very little was needed. And, really, I think audiences have been better cultivated, in terms of their tolerance for films that hew close to the story and have less of that artifice and have less of the created story arcs, as opposed to things that really had historical beats. I think audiences have more patience for following historical stories now.

I think about Ben Affleck’s Argo. It won the Oscar for best picture, but the film took a lot of heat for its exaggerations of the storyline.

Yes. And, conversely, you look at Lincoln, which eschewed bigger, broader moments in favour of an intimate story about a very important piece of history, but one that was ultimately about getting a bill passed. I think five or six years ago there was this sense that you had to have these big, outlandish beats to keep an audience interested. But I think audiences have moved to a different place, where they can be entertained by the human connection you find in a real story.

The story of Jimi Hendrix is well known, but the man himself, perhaps because he died at age 27, is a bit of a mystery. I’ve always thought him to be rather alien. What were your ideas on how to present him?

One of the reasons I wanted to make this movie was to reveal aspects of him or thoughts or philosophies that most people didn’t know. It’s interesting that you mention alien. One of my takeaways, and you’ll remember from the film, with the scene in the bookstore, is that Jimi was an avid reader of science fiction. He really did believe in life in outer space. He talked about how it influenced the individual and how it was going to change the world in time. He held those things to be true.

His spaced-out vibe would have been perceived as product of drug use. Purple haze, all in my brain, right?

A lot of people think Purple Haze was a drug song. But actually the song title is a reference to the “purple haze” in the sci-fi novel Night of Light by Philip José Farmer. With this film, I want people to know that there was more to his creativity than simply being a psychedelic rocker. His thoughts, both on a macro level and just as he carried himself, were a little bit alien, because that’s where his head was at.

I love André Benjamin’s portrayal of Jimi. How did he get into that head space you’re talking about?

Two things: We never approached it as a Vegas-lounge-act version of Jimi Hendrix, where it was just about getting the tics and mannerisms of this guy. We dug deeper. We wanted an emotional truth to the character, and that’s what we wanted to portray. That’s more difficult than “here’s the guy who had the left hand and the blown-out ‘fro.” We wanted a to create a character, not a caricature.

Still, André did nail him, physically.

He spent about six months training and working with a vocal coach and getting aspects of the physicality down. Coming into this film, André was in terrific shape. But he lost a great deal of weight for the role. Jimi was nearly emaciated at that time period. André was willing to lose the weight because a person a little bit lighter carries themselves differently. And there was the learning to play the guitar upside down, strung backward and to be able to replicate those chords so accurately.

One of the things we see is the transformation of Jimi. He’s pretty laid back about his career at the beginning. But by the end of the film, just as we’re about to get to his breakthrough performance at Monterey Pop in 1967, he’s changed.

In the early stages, Jimi was very passive with his own life. I found that very interesting, when someone has that degree of talent but has given up on themselves. Or they have this belief that their talent will carry the day. By the end of the film, he’s much more assertive. A moment presents itself where he can either be very passive and let the moment go. But he decides to do something that potentially could be a disaster. He tells his bandmates that “this is living, let’s have at it.” And that really changes his course.

You didn’t use any song material that was actually written by Hendrix. How did that change the storytelling?

Ultimately it didn’t. This was a story that predates that era. The music that we used could be historically accurate and absolutely correct. He really did play Future Trip, Bleeding Heart, Killin’ Floor and Mannish Boy . He played Sgt. Pepper. We could introduce or reintroduce a soundtrack of some catalogue music that fans perhaps weren’t familiar with.

Do you think some fans, especially the casual ones, will be disappointed when they don’t hear the recognizable stuff?

There may be some people who come into it expecting a greatest-hits collection. I don’t understand what the benefit of doing that is. For any story, a film has to be informative for it to be relevant. If all we’re doing is giving people music they’re familiar with, we would have been almost as well off by taking our production budget and buying these fantastic CDs with these fantastic songs and just handing them out to people on the street corner. Instead, we have a story to offer them. It has its own power and emotional velocity. And if you don’t have that, you have nothing.

All Is By My Side screens Sept. 14, 3 p.m., at Ryerson Theatre, 350 Victoria St., tiff.net

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