Q&A: Danny Bramson on How “Sgt. Pepper” Made Andre 3000′s Jimi Hendrix Movie
“If you want to have a long career, Danny, no interviews and no photo ops.” Danny Bramson delivers these words in a high, nasal drawl. That’s because he’s reciting advice he got at age 18 from Neil Young, whose score for 1980′s Where the Buffalo Roam was one of Bramson’s first film-music projects. The producer for new movie Jimi: All Is By My Side, written and directed by 12 Years a Slave screenwriter John Ridley and starring OutKast‘s André Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix, has since supervised the music for dozens of films, including director Cameron Crowe’s movies such as Say Anything…, Singles, Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous and Vanilla Sky.
Bramson calls Jimi: All Is By My Side, which opens September 26, “the most challenging” film he’s worked on to date. That’s partly because it was essentially his first indie movie, with a total budget of less than $5 million, compared with his previous low of perhaps $20 million. But he also points to what he calls “the responsibility” of interpreting Hendrix and the rock legend’s performances, describing the pressure to get it right as “unparalleled.” Bramson spoke over the phone with Wondering Sound’s Marc Hogan about his career, how an originally unscripted performance of the Beatles‘ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” became the culmination of the film and how André 3000 captured the Hendrix experience.
Hear an Radio playlist of music from Bramson’s film projects below, and read on for the interview.
It’s interesting that this is a Hendrix movie where, not only could you not use Hendrix’s music, but it’s also not really a straight biopic. When you first took the project, how did you approach picking songs for the film?
My agent phoned me one day and said: “Look, I’m sending you a script. I’m not going to tell you a word about it. I don’t want any of your preconceived notions. I just want you to read this thing and see if it moves you and call me as soon as you read it.” Which was unique in our relationship.
So as soon as I got it I sat down, started reading and of course by page eight I noticed the lead character’s named Jimmy James, with the proverbial eye roll. But about 20 pages in I was so taken with the screenplay and the dialogue and the poetry of the screenwriter’s use of these two muses in Jimi’s life, most notably Linda Keith, and I just consumed the script. It was the ultimate page-turner for me.
So what happened next?
I phoned my agent and said: “OK, man, you won. I’ve gotta meet this guy.” We sat down at lunch the next day with at that time the sole producers on the film, Sean McKittrick and Jeff Culotta, guys I had never worked with. Lunch turned into dinner.
We went about five, close to six hours. The first thing I asked John was: “Did you ever go on the road? Had you ever played an instrument? Did you ever wake up next to Anita Pallenberg? Had you ever been in a recording studio?” Because his first draft had just felt so organic and real in a not pretentious way.
And then the next day, he and Sean McKittrick called to not only invite me to produce and design the music for the film but to actually produce the film as well.
From that, here it is now, you and I talking, over four years later after that lunch.
How did you go about selecting songs?
For years I heard, “How the hell are you gonna make a movie with Jimi Hendrix without Jimi Hendrix’s songs?” I gravitated to a musical approach of interpretation — of Jimi’s style, point of view and the inspirations that surrounded him.
From there, how did Jimi performing the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” become the culmination of the film?
That was not in John’s first draft. When John and I first sat down, I had turned him on to what I felt was one of the great stories never told in our young history of rock’n’roll. Sgt. Pepper had been released on a Thursday in the shops in England, and the Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein had taken over the Saville Theatre there in London. He’d put together three-act bills exclusively on Sunday nights, and he’d book two shows a night.
On the Sunday following the Thursday release of Sgt. Pepper, this three-act bill opened with Denny Laine, who later went on to become [Paul] McCartney‘s guitarist in Wings for 10 years. It then went to Procul Harum. And then was Jimi and the Experience’s first headlining gig in London of any note. It had never been photographed, had never been bottled, and if you were to dial it up on YouTube, it’s always misinterpreted and mislabeled as that performance — his poor performance on YouTube of “Sgt. Pepper” at the same theater was taken from a year after he had become Jimi Hendrix and set the world on fire in America.
I had told John about the performance and the legion of English personalities that had come to see Hendrix, only a week or so prior to him getting on that airplane to fly off to America and play the Monterey Pop Festival, where his performance changed his life and career forever. I felt so strongly in my dream of capturing that moment that I was relentless from that very first sit-down with John.
Thankfully, throughout my career Cameron and I had done a little movie called Jerry Maguire, when McCartney was impossible to get for a film. We were the odd Americans in a long line, presuming only to be rejected, to reqest a song from the McCartneys. But ours caught his attention because of all things, he had said later: “What did these Americans want? Did they want ‘Maybe I’m Amazed’? Did they want ‘Blackbird’? Did they want ‘Yesterday’? No, what these two guys wanted were these two odd instrumentals that he recorded in the barn with Linda for his very first solo albums, called “Singalong Junk” and “Momma Miss America.” And Paul and Linda were so curious, they gave us both of those songs.
That was the beginning of our relationship, and then when we made Vanilla Sky years later, Paul wrote for us our title and original song [which got nominated for an Academy Award].
With this one, I had said to John from the beginning, everybody knows what happens when Jimi walks through Heathrow and sets foot in America. And then much to my delight, I was here finishing some last pieces of music I was recording and John rang me. I had never heard him sound so impassioned and excited. He’d been up all night and had just this creative epiphany and had rewritten a big chunk of the film. He raced these pages over to me and much to my surprise it was this tremendous polish and redraft, culminating in the performance at the Saville in front of Paul and George.
Now you had to go get the song.
Cameron had said, throughout all of our films, it’s one thing to just be a filmmaker who comes up with a great idea for a song, but it’s another to actually pull it off. Let alone “Sgt. Pepper,” which had only been licensed to my knowledge once before, without the Beatles’ involvement. It had been taken boldly and redone and put in that ill-fated project, [the 1976 film] Sgt. Pepper.
I stayed away from the great introduction Bono gave on Rattle and Hum, in which he introduced “Helter Skelter,” saying, “Charlie Manson took it away, and now we’re here to take it back.” I didn’t go there, but I rang Paul and much to my absolute delight, with Paul, Olivia Harrison, Yoko and Ringo and then Michael Jackson’s estate and Katherine Jackson and all of the estate’s attorneys and Sony, I was able to get all of their approval without exchanging one page of the script.
How did you record it?
We recorded much like a director would use a method approach in acting. I did everything but change the trousers in my trio that I used throughout all of our recordings. We used different gear — drums, amplifiers, guitars — to not only replicate, but to delineate the sounds , whether it was Keith Moon, Mitch Mitchell or Ginger Baker’s drumming as well as the various guitarists, from Clapton to Jimi, that we personified in the film. For “Sgt. Pepper,” he had just learned it, so he couldn’t be too familiar with it and its verses. But obviously he’d know the chorus and those lyrics.
When I left John after that first day-long meeting, we immediately asked him what was his dreaming casting. Without hesitation, he said André Benjamin. Everyone had expected that I’d go through my phone book and go for a star-driven guitarist: the Jack Whites, the Jeff Becks, the Claptons. And yet I knew the demands of this.
In recording “Sgt. Pepper,” much like I did the entire movie, I had put together my ultimate trio: Waddy Wachtel (Keith Richards, Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt) on all guitars, Leland Sklar on bass (Carole King‘s Tapestry, James Taylor, Jackson Browne) and Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp) on drums. My code word throughout the film was we weren’t going to be a caricature or note-by-note replication of Hendrix or his iconic performances but an interpretation of what Jimi would’ve played.
What was involved in training André to play these left-handed guitar parts on camera?
Not only did we have to come up with, create and record every note in the film, but we had to do it as far in advance of the actual shooting as possible, so that André could learn the left-handed fingering. John and I declared early on that we weren’t going to use any movie magic and reverse the camera digitally to make André’s right-handed performances look left. We weren’t going to have a big Afro placed strategically in front of his hands, or put the camera in the back row of a theater.
I had a friend named Andrew Rollins. We finished shooting the movie two years ago and in that time he’s blossomed as a songwriter penning a lot of songs in that Nashville TV show. He was someone I could trust implicitly. With Andrew I found a really willing and patient guy that André would not get sick of.
John and I didn’t just give him a blanket of nine five-minute pieces and have him learn every chord and lick of it. We broke down each performance that we had set for filming. We would give André 20 seconds to a minute-and-a-half of eight, nine, 10 various performances. He and Andrew concentrated six to seven hours a day, seven days a week, all during pre-production — close to four months — here in Los Angeles. And then when we moved to Dublin, where we shot the film, I had set up a side-room rehearsal space where he and Andrew could continue to rehearse all the way through our final day of shooting.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some of our greatest performers, and André Benjamin, as an actor and how he approached this film, ranks alongside any of them.
Aside from “Sgt. Pepper,” what other songs in the film were the most meaningful to you?
That first night, Linda brought Jimi home and turned him, literally and figuratively, and as much as the LSD influences that particular evening, her box of records was amazing. That run of their first evening together was such a blast to be able to design, whether it be a brief burst of Mozart to that brief visual and musical blast of Buddy Guy.
When you ask me that question, I think what were those songs that every time I watch it I hunger for more. And when I hear the Small Faces doing “Itchycoo Park,” it’s always a song that was a guilty and real pleasure of mine. There are so many of those little pieces that help to define that moment in time.
The thing that most took me away was the sublime power of John’s script. It’s very hard for me to ever feel satisfied, let alone with something I’ve done, yet with this film I can only hope that we matched and complemented the poetry of John’s script.