STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
A few years ago, the screenwriter John Ridley was listening to music online.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PURPLE HAZE")
JIMI HENDRIX: (Singing) Excuse me while I kiss the sky.
INSKEEP: Music by the great 1960s guitarist Jimi Hendrix, whose hits include "Purple Haze," Ridley was looking for something more obscure. Something he hadn't heard a million times. And this story begins with what he found.
JOHN RIDLEY: A song started playing that was so powerful and so passionate. It was - it was a piece that really, really moved me. And I looked at the title and it was called "Sending My Love To Linda."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEND MY LOVE TO LINDA")
HENDRIX: (Singing) Send my love to Linda. She lit a fire way down inside.
INSKEEP: "Sending My Love To Linda."
RIDLEY: And I started thinking well, who's Linda?
INSKEEP: That question sent John Ridley in search of a story and ultimately led to a screenplay, because Linda was a real person who played a vital role in making Jimi Hendrix famous.
RIDLEY: She was 19 years old. She was the girlfriend of Keith Richards at that time. And she went into a nightclub in New York in 1966 and saw a guy who was going by the name of Jimmy James. And she saw him and said this is one of the most fascinating guitarists that she'd ever seen in her life.
INSKEEP: He was just a backup guitarist then. Linda Keith found him a manager who took him to London, where he quickly became a star.
RIDLEY: Where it not for Linda Keith, the Jimi Hendrix that we've come to know probably would not exist.
INSKEEP: John Ridley wrote a film version of the guitarist's early career. And it's become the movie "Jimmi: All Is By My Side." In that film we hear Linda Keith, played by Imogen Poots, telling the guitarist, played by Andre Benjamin, that he needs to get up and sing.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "JIMMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE")
IMOGEN POOTS: (As Linda Keith) Do you think you might try putting something else into it? I think you'd have a lot more to offer if you were to sing.
ANDRE BENJAMIN: (As Jimi Hendrix) My voice is terrible.
POOTS: (As Linda Keith) So is Dylan's. He's doing all right isn't he? Do I sound like your mother?
BENJAMIN: (As Jimi Hendrix) I wouldn't know.
INSKEEP: This biopic was made without any Jimi Hendrix hits. The filmmakers couldn't get the rights. But from the start, Ridley had wanted to focus only on a slice of the musician's life. A year before Hendrix had many hits. It's a year when Linda Keith and others influenced a man with tremendous talent.
RIDLEY: People ask me what does that title really mean "All Is By My Side?" And I think it's not untrue to say about a lot of people, whether people had a great cultural density or people who are out just living their lives on a daily basis, is that we're really made by the people around us sometimes. They see things in us that we don't see in ourselves. And there is a line in the film where Jimi says, in a very deep manner as he was wanting to do, he said, you know, sometimes the things we love they stay with us, whether we want them to or not. And I thought that was very, very powerful and very profound that sometimes if we can't drive ourselves there are those other people who drive us - because they push us, because they pull us, because they hector us, because we want to impress them, because we want to be different from them.
INSKEEP: I want people to know that this movie that you wrote was being filmed at the same time that they were filming "12 Years A Slave," about slavery in the 1840s, which you also wrote. Did the one film - the experience of immersing yourself in one period in history - in any way inform the way you went after the other period in history?
RIDLEY: Ironically, or interestingly, I was coming off of a lot of historical films. I had just finished "Red Tails," which was a film that I did with George Lucas that was about the Tuskegee airmen. I had written a film about the LA riots. So I was in space where I was very much about trying to represent what a lot of people might think of as Black American history. But I think as really American history and in some ways world history. It was a fortunate set of circumstances.
INSKEEP: Did you begin to sense what had changed and what had not changed in the 120 years between the periods of those two movies?
RIDLEY: Certainly a lot had changed. I mean, Jimi Hendrix had an opportunity to go where he wanted and do what he wanted. A lot had not changed. There were certain kinds of music that Jimi was expected to play because he was black. He really liked to cross pollinate with his music. And infuse it with rock, with blues, with jazz, with folk. And at that time, unfortunately, in America if you were doing blues and you were it moving uptown, they didn't necessarily like having an electric feel that was infused with it. But in England at that time, people really looked at music as being origamic in a fashion and that it could be folded and malleable.
INSKEEP: Origamic like origami, the paper art, is what you're saying?
RIDLEY: Yes, that you could fold it, that you could take different parts of it and make into one thing that was really, really beautiful. And sometimes it's not unique but a person really needs to travel a distance to find themselves. And in that regard, Jimi had to travel to London to a place where people were like, no, what you're doing is wonderful, it's beautiful, it's unique. So he had to go someplace else to do the thing that he really wanted.
INSKEEP: You told us that you are focusing on Black or African-American history but you'd like to think of it as American history. You don't want to be put in a box. And you've described Jimi Hendrix as this character who was into cross-pollination and did not like to be put in a box. Did you choose a character here who in some way reflects your own ambitions?
RIDLEY: Yeah, (laughter) that's a really good question. I would say yes. I am not a musician. But there are aspects of Jimi in terms of an individual who wanted to create what he wanted to create. He loved playing live instead of so much in a studio because he likes to play things differently every time. You know, audience members would yell out to him, you know, play "Purple Haze," you know, "Hey Joe." And he would say, you know, I don't want to play that. I want to play what I want to play. And I think that really comes to bear with the last few films that I've been involved in. "12 Years A Slave" was a very particular kind of film and a very particular kind of filmmaking. And I think "All Is By My Side" equally is just - it's a different kind of film. And there are people who are going to appreciate those differences and there are people who may be baffled by it.
INSKEEP: John Ridley, always a pleasure talking with you.
RIDLEY: Thank you very much, Steve. It's a pleasure as well.
INSKEEP: John is a MORNING EDITION commentator and writer-director of the new movie "Jimi: All Is By My Side." It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Our theme music was composed by BJ Lederman, arranged by Jim Pew. Too it was never played by Jimi Hendrix. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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I'm Audie Cornish.
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