Andre Benjamin was uniquely qualified to play Jimi Hendrix in the film "Jimi: All Is By My Side," and not just because his colorfully cosmic style has long owed something to the '60s icon.
The film, written and directed by "12 Years a Slave" screenwriter John Ridley, is a portrait of Hendrix in 1966 – a then somewhat aimless 24-year-old playing backup guitar – finding himself as a frontman and being elevated by the blues-rock scene of Swinging London. As the often reticent half of hip-hop duo Outkast, Benjamin, too, knows something about the psychology of a performer discovering his onstage swagger.
"I had to grow into being an entertainer and Jimi had to grow into being an entertainer, too," Benjamin said in a recent interview. "I can say from being an entertainer and a star, my very first shows were horrible. The shyness. You're put on stage in front of all of these people, and you're kind of in your head a lot. It takes the confidence of knowing, 'Hey, people dig this.'"
"All Is By My Side," which opens in theaters Friday, eschews the usual cradle-to-the-grave biopic trajectory, focusing instead on Hendrix's discovery by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots), his formation of The Experience and his breakthrough in a town dominated by the Beatles and Eric Clapton. Made without the cooperation or approval of the Hendrix estate, the independently produced "All Is By My Side" doesn't include any of Hendrix's familiar hits.
"I don't really see the point of just showing people what they already know. I never felt that that was going to impede our ability to tell the story," says Ridley, who won an Oscar for "12 Years a Slave." ''We've all seen films before that have had access to artifacts or intellectual property, and they put their best foot forward, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the story's going to be there."
The film is Benjamin's first since the 2008 Will Ferrell comedy "Semi-Pro." He turned down Ridley several times before agreeing to tackle the role, for which he studied with a vocal coach and strove to learn to play guitar left-handed. As a naturally right-handed player, he compares the task to walking backward.
For Benjamin, who dabbled in movies in the '00s most notably with the Prohibition musical "Idlewild," it's easily his most ambitious acting work. "All Is By My Side" is opening during a kind of crossroads for Benjamin, who has been touring with his Outkast partner, Big Boi, for the first time in years, celebrating the 20th anniversary of their debut album.
It's been nearly a decade since Benjamin put out an album, solo or with Outkast. He's limited himself largely to appearances on the records of others (Frank Ocean, Lil Wayne). Now 39, he's said he'll give up rap when he turns 40.
"I can't say I was gearing up to make this huge acting jump, but if that's the way my life goes, I'm wit it," says Benjamin. "In music, I still write almost every day. I don't know how I feel about it at this age. I always write. But I don't know if I believe in it enough to want to present it. You have to believe in it to work.
"I really don't know what's going on," he adds. "I'm kind of in a limbo place."
Ridley flew to Atlanta to meet with Benjamin, who had been sought for other Hendrix films.
"Being around him for about five or 10 minutes you realize that he really is the right person to try to attempt something like this," says Ridley, who's currently prepping a series for ABC, "American Crime." ''He's very intellectually curious. He's very much a true artist. He's very much a music historian."
In order to capture Hendrix's far-out, mellow voice, Ridley had Benjamin stay in character during production: "John basically ordered the set not to talk to me unless I was in Hendrix's voice so I could always be in it," says Benjamin.
The film also shows Hendrix's less savory side, including a scene in which he strikes girlfriend Kathy Etchingham with a phone – an incident Etchingham has resolutely denied ever happened. Ridley stands by the depiction as accurate to other viewpoints. Either way, it's the kind of scene that surely wouldn't have made it into an authorized biopic. (Another, estate-endorsed project is in development, with Anthony Mackie to star as Hendrix.)
"The minute that you cede editorial control to any one person or any one entity, it goes from being an attempt at an honest story to propaganda," says Ridley. "Anybody's life story deserves a little better than that."