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Writer-director John Ridley readily admits that his indie treatment of guitar great Jimi Hendrix—which focuses on the year the influential instrumentalist spent in London before he became a worldwide phenomenon—eschews the typical cradle-to-grave biopic style. ''The excitement was in avoiding what was expected,'' he says about JIMI, which stars Outkast frontman André Benjamin. After they were introduced by a mutual friend, Ridley enlisted Benjamin, whose primary credit is the 2006 movie-musical Idlewild. Ridley, who picked up a screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, insists he wasn't deterred by Benjamin's lack of acting experience: ''He had so many traits of Jimi Hendrix—humble, thoughtful, introspective. The way he embodies Jimi is unbelievable.''
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The film begins in 1966, when ''Jimi was just emaciated,'' says Ridley. ''He was broke.'' Benjamin lost 20 pounds from his athletic 5'10'' frame. Despite the star's low-cal diet, Ridley says, ''André was just an even-tempered, thoughtful, and hard-working individual.'' Here, Benjamin is in character with British actress Hayley Atwell as Kathy Etchingham, whom Hendrix met and began a relationship with shortly after he moved to London in 1966.
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Before the shoot began, Benjamin underwent five months of rigorous guitar lessons. ''André learned how to play the guitar upside down and left-handed just like Jimi did,'' says Ridley. ''He gave himself over to the part in all ways.''
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Benjamin wore a custom-made wig in the lofty pompadour style Hendrix had during his days as a backup instrumentalist. Here, Benjamin's hair is teased into the rocker's famed Afro.
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Imogen Poots (Need for Speed, Filth) plays Linda Keith, a young model and girlfriend of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards. But Keith was also a muse to Hendrix during his early days in London; a relationship which inspired the guitarist to pen the song ''Sending My Love to Linda.'' ''[It] was deep and rich and moving,'' says Ridley of the tune. ''And I just started wondering who was Linda and started searching for the story?Jimi may have gone on to be a massive star, but he would not be the Jimi Hendrix we know had it not been for Linda Keith.''
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''A lot of people think Jimi's life was just sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll, but it was really an exploration of self-expression in all regards,'' says Ridley. So it's appropriate that clothes play an important part in the film, even for secondary characters like Ruth Negga (World War Z) as wild child, hippie Ida. The clothes worn by Negga, Poots, and Atwell were entirely vintage, sourced from private collections, costume houses and flea markets by Ireland-based costume designer Leonie Prendergast. ''Everything was original,'' says Prendergast. ''Even the extras were in authentic, original clothes.''
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For a scene in which Hendrix performs ''Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band'' with a few Beatles in attendance, Prendergast hand-painted a wildly psychedelic pattern onto a custom-made white silk jacket. ''That was really fun,'' says the designer. Slim tailor-made trousers complete the look.
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Prendergast ordered a custom-made '60s-era jacket with gold braiding in a stitch-for-stitch replica of Hendrix's signature Hussars military jacket. No detail was too small for the style-conscious Benjamin, who accessorized with Native American pieces and several replicas (made by Irish craftsmen) of Hendrix's signature jewelry, including a silver and onyx ring. ''André would always pick his jewelry as a finishing touch,'' says Prendergast. ''He made a daily ritual of it.''