There are more arguments than shared opinions in the music community, especially amongst snobs like myself. Who started punk, The Sex Pistols or The Ramones? Who was the greatest Rock and Roll band ever, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles? Best dead rapper, Tupac or Biggie? The list goes on as far back as melodic sound. But one of the only opinions that almost borders on fact is that the greatest guitar player to ever live was Jimi Hendrix. His talent was exceeded by no man and his drug use was legendary (he supposedly kept tabs of acid in his headband during shows, allowing for the sweat to absorb the drug directly into his head), which is why he is the subject of a newly announced biopic starring Outkast's André 3000. Sadly, the biopic is starting to become no more than a gimmick. There's no denying the greatness of Hendrix, but great music doesn't guarantee great cinema.
Of course, before you can make a biopic you need a legend, a category which Hendrix certainly belongs in. But you also need someone who's life was as extraordinary or controversial as their work. Let's take a good hard look at the lives of a few legends that have made it to the silver screen. Jerry Lee Lewis (Great Balls of Fire) not only revolutionized a genre, but married his teenage cousin. Ray Charles (Ray) made beautiful soulful music. He was also a blind junkie whose music was condemned by the church and banned from the state of Georgia due to his race, only to have “Georgia On My Mind” later named the state song. Johnny Cash (Walk The Line) not only brought country to the masses with his uniquely low voice and dark fashion sense, he struggled with addiction, family, and the law, eventually thumbing his nose at all of it by playing a legendary show in one of the country's most infamous prisons with his soon-to-be-wife, living one of Rock and Roll's greatest love stories. There's a pretty clear narrative in each story featuring the perilous rise of the star (mocked in the faux biopic, Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), but not every Rock and Roll legend lived it the Hollywood way.
Not to say that I don't understand why they're making a Jimi movie. Hendrix does seem like an obvious choice of subject. He dressed funny, took a ton of drugs, and played legendary sets at historic concerts in which he lit his guitars on fire. Oh, and he died at a young age, which doesn't hurt either. This, combined with an excellent choice of actor seems like a knockout on the surface, right?
André 3000, like Hendrix before him, has somewhat of an eccentric musical reputation of his own. The man is never been one to shy away from weird sounds and loud fashion choices, and I have no doubt that he was greatly influenced by Hendrix himself. In addition to this, Andre has a few film titles under his belt (Four Brothers, Idlewild). If nothing else, he'll certainly look the part. But I want something more.
To my knowledge Hendrix's life was not particularly extraordinary. Okay, it was certainly not an average life, but let's face it, Hendrix happened to live during a time of cultural revolution. He made his name by performing everywhere he could, impressing everyone who saw him, including Eric Clapton and Pete Townshend. The guy did nothing but play guitar and take drugs save for a short, relatively uneventful stint in the army. Hard work does not a great movie make, unless the odds are against the main character nearly 100% of the way.
It seems we cannot simply let the man be represented by the music he made, and because Hollywood is going to need some sort of standard heroic narrative, Hendrix will likely be forced into an archetype that he did not necessarily embody. In addition, it is being reported that they are focusing on his early career, before Woodstock or Monterrey Pop, or any of the other defining moments in the career. If there's anything worthy of a movie, isn't that where it would be?
The times Hendrix lived in, and the people who surrounded him, are the real story. The late '60s and psychedelic scene are just as important, if not more than Hendrix himself. There was no shortage of musicians, actors, or generally famous people in that scene. Hendrix just provided a kickass sound track. Cash, Lewis, and Charles lived in times where people didn't quite understand the music they were making and shunned them for it. They were all forced to leave the communities that they loved. Sure, he had to leave America for England to find his audience, but how long and arduous was his stay? Is it a movie's worth? Don't get me wrong, Hendrix revolutionized Rock and Roll and influenced music and culture in ways that are still being felt today, but he came at a time where there was plenty of peace, love, and understanding in the form of community support.
Maybe there's some interesting stories in there that I'm unaware of. I'm sure Jimi Hendrix lived an interesting life, but I somehow doubt it was one with a concrete narrative. Hendrix was about music, sweet music. Loud, colorful, sonically beautiful music. He didn't beat the odds or get the girl. He just fucking rocked. Great music doesn't need a great story, but great movies do. Hopefully it's just not at the expense of the legend.