Jimi Hendrix Film Producer: 'We Bet the House on Andre Benjamin' (Q&A)
The Beatles, Cream, the Animals, Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones played roles in the development of Jimi Hendrix in 1966 and 1967, a 12-month period that saw the guitarist emerge from Curtis Knight's rhythm section to form the Experience and take a starring role in the Monterey Pop Festival that altered the history of rock 'n' roll.
The story is told in Jimi: All By My Side without the benefit of any Hendrix recordings.
"The most serious of the challenges," says All By My Side producer Danny Bramson, "was the responsibility of creating and recording new and original material that puts you in the environment of interpreting Hendrix. I needed a guitarist with the skill and dexterity, but also that X factor of malleability where you can transcend your ego and personal styles and licks and let the musicology of Hendrix shine. I felt Waddy Wachtel was it for me."
While the film includes three-dozen recording from the likes of Dylan, Small Faces, Buddy Guy and T-Bone Walker, guitarist Wachtel, bassist Leland Sklar and drummer Kenny Aronoff created the film's original music, interpreting the evolution of Hendrix as a stylist whether jamming with Cream, playing New York's Cafe Wha?? or shaping the Jimi Hendrix Experience with bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell. For each setting they used different guitars, amps and drums, recording at Capitol Studio A with Niv Adiri, who won a sound mixing Oscar for Gravity.
"I was never preoccupied with getting the iconic material, " says Bramson, who saw Hendrix perform in Los Angeles at the Forum and the ill-fated Newport Pop Festival at Devonshire Downs in June 1969. "I felt so strongly in trying to go for interpretation of Hendrix and the musical environment that surrounded him and mirrored his sense of finding himself as a guitarist."
Timing could not be better for Jimi: All By My Side, which was well received at its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September and plays at SXSW in advance of its June theatrical release. Its writer-director John Ridley is coming an Oscar win for penning 12 Years A Slave; star Andre Benjamin is back in the news with OutKast's 40-city reunion tour that begins in April at Coachella; and U.S. Postal Service is unveiling a Hendrix stamp on March 13 in Austin.
Jimi: All By My Side is Bramson's first as a hands-on producer after nearly three decades of doing music supervision. The former concert promoter and label chief - he helped break Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers -- is most closely associated with the films of Cameron Crowe, having overseen the music on Singles, Almost Famous, Vanilla Sky and others. Besides working on the Ray Charles biopic Ray, he spent the early part of the 21st century overseeing soundtracks for Warner Bros. Records.
The film was made for $5 million, which Bramson says was half a million dollars less than Dreamworks provided for the music budget of Almost Famous. "I had never ever swam in financial waters that shallow," he says.
In his first interview for All By My Side, Bramson, 60, talks about boarding the project four years ago, securing a Beatles classic and the casting of a right-handed rapper-musician to play the world's most famous left-handed guitar icon.
Was there any trepidation in taking on this project after efforts to do the Hendrix story had stalled over music rights issues?
My long-time agent at CAA wanted me to read a script by a write I was familiar with, John Ridley, who had written Three Kings. The script came with three or four concerns. It came in the wake of Paul Greengrass' ambitious attempt to do the Jimi Hendrix bio at Warner Bros. [Legendary Pictures was financing] that had been scuttled because of the estate's concerns. I had no previous relationship with John or the independent world or the budget. This had the ambitiousness of a period piece as well as conveying Jimi Hendrix. Within 10 pages of John's script, the prose had pulled me all the way in.
What appealed to you about that first draft and how did you deal with changes?
Within 48 hours of me getting those pages, I sat down with John along with the other principal producers, Sean McKittrick and Jeff Culotta of Darko, a company I was absolutely unfamiliar with. I sat down at that lunch meeting, challenging John on everything and lunch turned into dinner and five hours later we left. His acceptance of my desire for changes to bring absolute credibility and get the little things right -- the buzzes of amplifiers. But the onstage moments, the artistic pondering and the inspirations that his first draft illuminated along with various anecdotes and environs that I was unaware of, that turned me on. The next morning, John and Sean rang me and my agent and invited me not only produce and direct the musical design, but produce the picture.
How did you help the script along?
I was relentless in preaching and converting John [to include] what I felt was always the greatest rock story never told -- EMI releases Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band on a Thursday and Jimi performs it the following Sunday in front of Paul McCartney and Jane Asher and George Harrison and Patti Boyd. We all know that when he walks through [Heathrow] airport what's going to happen at Monterey.
That also required getting the rights to Sgt. Pepper.
I believe it's the first license the Beatles have granted for Sgt. Pepper. I had the great fortune of working with Paul [to secure] two instrumentals ["Sing-along Junk" and "Momma Miss America"] in Jerry Maguire and convincing him during the editing of Vanilla Sky to [write a new song]. I had said we wanted to re-create the Saville show and without sending a page, within 72 hours it was approved.
Andre Benjamin delivers a phenomenal performance as Hendrix. It's one thing to get the character down, but what did it take to make him believable as a guitarist?
We bet the house on our one and only choice, Andre Benjamin. Andre and I had ironically spoken once before -- when I was producing music for Higher Learning. [Director] John Singleton had turned me on to the scene in Atlanta and the song they delivered to us predated their first album. I flew to Atlanta probably two and half years ago and sat down with Andre; I could finally thank him. The idea of anyone playing Hendrix, let alone a right-handed guitarist, was one of the greatest challenges of the project. I found a really patient teacher and put together a regimen for Andre when he came out to Los Angeles. He sat in a small studio, six hours a day, putting in dedication [to learn how to play left-handed]. His guitarmanship had to carry the idea of grace and fluidity. John and I declared that we didn't want to have the camera cropped on his face and not the guitar. He kept working in a rehearsal room throughout the production.
Beyond the convincing instrumentals, you have about 36 tracks in there that tell a story, too. Including Bob Dylan and Buddy Guy and the Seeds, were you interested in telling a story about Hendrix's musical tastes or just showing what anyone might have heard at that time?
I always look for those songs less traveled, like the two Dylan cuts "Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat" and "Obviously Five Believers." It's too easy to say B-sides or album cuts. I wanted to go for those stolen moments when you're sitting around and that fourth song on side B that hasn't come to light is playing. Buddy Guy's "Out of Sight," the Yardbirds' "Little Games," Savoy Brown's "Train to Nowhere" -- songs from old mixtapes that I have always tried to put up against picture and see what works. This time, with the eye on the dollar, I went for the overall color and hues of Hendrix's environment. I hope it made an impression.
Jimi: All By My Side, starring Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell and Imogen Poots, screen on March 12 at the Paramount Theater.