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DVD Review: My Dinner With Jimi

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“If you can really remember anything about the Sixties, you weren’t really there.” — Paul Kantner

Among the fortunate few who saw director Bill Fishman’s My Dinner With Jimi on the big screen, at a film festival or in its limited theatrical release, this DVD has been eagerly anticipated. For the rest of us, who had only read praise for the film, the wait for this award-winning, low-budget quickie (shot in 12 days) has been agonizing. Now the DVD is here, and guess what? Entirely worth the agony.

My Dinner With Jimi is a factual account of a brief period in 1967 when the Turtles made the transition from opening act to stardom, however short-lived, with the number one hit, “Happy Together.” The first half of the film depicts the band’s struggle to achieve greater success than their modest hits to date, and to avoid the military draft. Their place in the L.A. rock and roll pantheon of the day is pointedly made when they are worthy of a 16 Magazine photo shoot, but get bumped from the cover in favor of the Monkees. The film’s second half plays out the Turtles’ first night in England, culminating in the title event, Kaylan’s early morning dining, drinking, and rap session with guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who was a personality on the hip London scene, but yet (prior to his first album’s release) unknown to America.

Unlike most Sixties rock and roll films, this one has the advantage of being told by the story’s central figure, Turtles’ singer Howard Kaylan, who wrote the screenplay and fully acknowledges the possibility of memory lapses, and the likely causes. The casual attitude about drug and alcohol abuse adds to the film’s feel of authenticity, and it’s to Kaylan’s credit that he didn’t attempt to downplay it. In fact, extreme drug and alcohol intake figure prominently into his and Mark Vollman’s draft aversion tactics, which also felt quite authentic, although that lengthy sequence bogs down an otherwise snappy 90 minutes.

My Dinner captures the brief, breathless time when the scenario played out in That Thing You Do (a film that shares the same buoyant, delirious prevailing mood)—of a bunch of kids putting together a neighborhood band, making a record, and having a number one hit—was not only feasible, it was happening all over the world. The immensely likable Turtles’ wide-eyed, star-struck naivety adds to the realism of the pivotal scenes in London’s exclusive Speakeasy Club. One of the film’s greatest strengths is in these scenes that show us the human dimensions of larger-than-life cultural figures like Hendrix, Brian Jones, and The Beatles.

With few exceptions (such as “Graham Nash’s” dodgy accent and some of the worst wigs and beards this side of my high school’s production of Gone With the Wind), the cast pulls off the difficult task of celebrity impersonation, compensating for marginal resemblance with spot-on voices and mannerisms. The most impressive is Royal Watkins as Jimi Hendrix, who convincingly plays the coolest cat in the place, even in the presence of John Lennon and Brian Jones. Even if Hendrix never suggested that Kaylan perform “all done up like John Steed of The Avengers,” Watkins is utterly convincing giving this advice. The film’s best line, and its best-delivered, may be when Hendrix tries to talk Kaylan out of getting married, saying, “Don’t do it. This is hit record time.”

While scenes like the one in Cantor’s Deli, featuring Jim Morrison and a pickle, stretch credulity, they are so charming and funny, you won’t care about the “higher degree of accuracy” that producer Harold Bronson claims this film has over most films “based on actual events.” Accurate or not, My Dinner With Jimi captures the look and feel of the Sixties at their swinging-est. It’s a gas!

Extras include Howard Kaylan’s commentary, with Harold Bronson; their anecdotes add considerably to the story.

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About James A. Gardner