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My Dinner with Jimi

Microfilms // Unrated // June 23, 2009
List Price: $14.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted July 6, 2009 | E-mail the Author
Is it possible to make a low budget biopic? "My Dinner with Jimi" tries its darnedest. At times, it looks like the scrappiness of it all is sure to pull the rug out from under the whole thing: the photography is rushed, with a cheap look comparable to those dreaded VH-1 movies about the Monkees and "Diff'rent Strokes," while a few of the celebrity imitators look buffoonish, like sketch show caricatures instead of honest portrayals. (The guys playing the Beatles sound like they took lessons from Dana Carvey.) The worst offender is the crummy hair-and-makeup department, who appear to have used their local Halloween shop for all their needs, dumping ill-fitting wigs and chintzy stick-on facial hair on the stars.

There are times when "Jimi" looks downright terrible, as if setting out to answer my initial question with a firm no. Surely all the work that goes into recreating a bygone era and iconic faces requires big cash and top talent. To try it with less, you end up with an embarrassment of bad hair and half-assed accents.

Ah, but "Jimi" has as one secret weapon a great sense of charm, and as another a surprisingly fine cast, and as another still a winking, sly script from the Turtles' own Howard Kaylan. It's Kaylan's autobiographical experiences we're seeing here, and there's a loosey-goosey approach to the storytelling that is at times an absolute delight. It's not so much a polished rock biography as a series of comic anecdotes and casual memories, which helps it not only overcome its limitations, but ultimately be plenty more fun than sort of self-serious rock biography preferred by Hollywood.

And, yes, it admits up front its possible inaccuracies, getting by with a wink and the naughty excuse that it'd be impossible to remember everything correctly considering the amount of illicit consumables on hand at the time. (Hardly a scene goes by without something being ingested. It's a surprise anyone's able to walk throughout this picture.)

The focus of the movie is the night in swinging London when the Turtles, fresh off the plane to help promote "Happy Together," encountered Graham Nash, Donovan, the Moody Blues, and the Beatles; after the band retreated to the hotel, Kaylan stuck around long enough to also meet Brian Jones, then share a meal, a joint, and an absurd amount of alcohol with Jimi Hendrix.

That's a hell of a story, enough for a full picture, but Kaylan first takes us back a full year, to 1966 and the start of the band's rise to fame. They're living it up as part of the L.A. music scene, casually ignoring put-downs from the teen-pop magazines that call their looks not right for stardom. Having paid their dues, they now find themselves enjoying the spotlight at places like the Whisky A Go Go, where up-and-comers like the Doors get to open for them.

Director Bill Fishman (who made a splash with the cult favorite "Tapeheads" but stalled horribly with "Car 54, Where Are You" - "Jimi" is only his second feature since that 1994 flop) finds the moments in the script that crackle with energy; there are three crucial set pieces here that are built entirely around the excitement of the "now," three scenes that burst with the very sort of electricity of a particular time and place. (The film itself was shot in a mere twelve days, perhaps adding to its rapid-fire tone.) The first is in a neighborhood deli, where bands arrive after their shows to wind down. Here we see the Turtles glowing over a positive review while Jim Morrison climbs over tables, Frank Zappa and Mama Cass debate "The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!" over french fries, and chatty waitresses and clueless seniors butt in from time to time. There's a certain joy in this scene, as editors Peter Shelton and Londin Angel Winters bounce us around from table to table; it's enough to convince us to shove aside all the film's low-tech problems and just bask in the fun of it all.

Shortly after comes the second key sequence, in which singers Kaylan (played by Justin Henry) and Mark Volman (Jason Boggs) attempt to outwit the draft board by showing up stoned out of their gourd. It's a concise comic interlude lampooning military seriousness and offering a taste of the anti-war sentiment brewing at the time; think of it as a mini-"Alice's Restaurant." Both stars deliver quick-witted performances that, again, elevate the film beyond its limitations.

Finally, the year has passed, the band's at the top of the charts, and we arrive in London, where Nash treats the boys to a preview of the Beatles' new record while the pipe gets passed around liberally. Everyone then heads out to the Speakeasy, a club where the Fab Four are holding court with drunken, crass merriment. Kaylan's screenplay trips over itself a bit with this subplot - there's no subtlety to the set-up of how guitarist Jim Tucker (Sean Maysonet) worships the Beatles, especially John Lennon, so there's no surprise when Lennon (Brian Groh) turns out to be a royal jerk, spitting insults and boorish jokes at the Yanks. Later, Kaylan is given dialogue about how disappointed they were when they discovered their idols weren't perfect. While it fits nicely into the overall theme of how the Turtles, shell-shocked by sudden fame, came to realize it was OK for celebrities to be ordinary people, the script is too ham-fisted in its efforts to build to this revelation.

Fortunately, the energy of the nightclub scene is at full force, providing us with our third key set piece. London really does swing here, and the Turtles seem wonderfully lost amid the mod chaos. It's a frenzy of famous faces (is that Twiggy?) and incomprehensible access (are we really singing with Paul McCartney?); the phrase "whirlwind" has seldom been as appropriate.

The titular dinner between Kaylan and Hendrix (Royale Watkins) isn't quite the capper we expected, but perhaps that's the point - while the Jimi here had yet to find fame in the States, we're looking at his character through hindsight, expecting more than just pot-fueled pretentiousness. And Kaylan's script admits that the whitebread singer was out of his league hanging with this king of cool, which both actors manage to spin for a certain level of charm.

And it's that sort of charm that carries the movie. We can groan over those terrible wigs and unconvincing costumes all we want, but by the end of the picture, we're still taken in by Kaylan's dizzying story and the insane had-to-be-there truths it reveals.

The DVD

Since its festival debut in 2003, "Jimi" spent six years bouncing around in ultra-limited release and only now arrives on DVD in the States through the new label Micro Werks.

Video & Audio

The aspect ratio is a mess here (although it seems to match the movie's intent), with opening and closing credits presented in 1.33:1 full frame and the rest of the film in 1.78:1 flat letterbox. At least the image itself, while looking cheap in that "video" sort of way, has nice colors and lovely detail, while the inserted archival footage adds some welcome flavor.

There's nothing special about the stereo soundtrack, but everything comes through clearly and crisply, especially the various musical interludes, which feature a nice amount of depth. No subtitles are provided.

Extras

Kaylan and producer Harold Bronson deliver a terrific commentary track that bounces between slight making-of discussion, admissions of creative license, and chats on the 60s music scene. Kaylan is a wonderful storyteller who's obviously having a blast with his memories, while Bronson fills in the gaps quite nicely.

"The Turtles in London" (6:43; 1.33:1 full frame) and "The Turtles' Managers" (3:40; 1.33:1) are excerpts from the 1990 documentary "The Turtles: Happy Together." The first collects scenes with band members and assorted experts discussing the same trip to London as seen in the movie; the second is a jokey bit in which Kaylan and Volman explain how the band ran through eight managers, several scams, and one lawsuit.

A Turtles discography rounds out the disc. A two-sided insert featuring liner notes from Bronson is included in the DVD case.

Final Thoughts

"My Dinner with Jimi" could've turned into a cheap mess, full of bad impersonations and cheesy recreations. It keeps the awful look but pulls off a surprising amount of fun, thanks to sharp direction, quality performances, and a heck of a fun mood. Despite the faulty image presentation, it's certainly Recommended.
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