There has been an almost constant hum of conjecture about possible film projects centring on late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley in the years since his accidental drowning at the age of 27 in 1997. Forthcoming biopic Mystery White Boy – official in that it’s been sanctioned by Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert (who holds the rights to his music) – promises to tell Buckley’s life story. Conversely, the first to see the light of day, Daniel Algrant’s low-key Greetings from Tim Buckley, restricts itself to a very narrow period in its subject’s short life: the days leading up to Jeff's performance at his father Tim's tribute concert in New York in 1991.
Algrant cross-cuts Jeff’s time in New York (largely spent wandering the streets and jamming) with flashback sequences of his late musician father Tim (Ben Rosenfield) conducting an illicit, on-tour affair in the 1960s. Past and present are connected by sound-bridged edits, with Tim’s lambent songs populating the soundtrack. The message, as dictated by the film language, is clear: Jeff is haunted by Tim, a man he barely knew and avowedly disliked, but whose musical and spiritual influence has clearly carried over. Tying things together is Algrant’s unfussy visual style, which recalls that of Julien Schnabel’s Basquiat (1994), a similarly sympathetic and unhurried portrayal of a talented artist who died at the untimely age of 27.
The film’s core strength is the revelatory lead performance of dead ringer Penn Badgley (best known for his role in TV’s Gossip Girl). His Buckley is alternately solipsistic, tender, and needy; one moment an exhibitionist, the next painfully shy; always instinctive. It’s a keen, respectful and intelligent imaging of a figure whom we know fairly little of. The actor, to his immense credit, insisted on singing all of Buckley’s parts, and he makes an excellent effort to nail the singer’s ethereal tenor-cum-falsetto. The stand-out scene finds Buckley and another musician jamming an early version of the soaring ‘Grace’ (which would become the haunting title track of Buckley’s sole LP in 1994).
Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley.
But Badgley’s turn can’t mask some of the film’s key flaws. It displays an unfortunate tendency to hit things somewhat on the nose, whether psychologically (I lost count of the amount of times a shot of a flying bird was used symbolically), or in establishing time and place (one flashback to the '60s has Tim and chums exchanging horribly forced banter about the Vietnam war). And sadly, an almost inevitable corollary of the film’s determinedly low-key approach is an absence of dramatic punch. Other than the concert (which constitutes the film’s inevitable conclusion), and Jeff’s incremental engagement with his father’s memory, there’s little else at stake, even if it is finally quite moving. This mightn’t be such an issue for Buckley devotees, but may result in disengagement for non-fans. Meanwhile, a fledgling romance with colleague Allie (Imogen Poots) is pretty but skeletal.
Ultimately, Greetings from Tim Buckley is best engaged with on its own terms as a gently evocative sketch of an enigmatic figure, blessed with a superb central performance. It’s a haunting – even graceful – mood piece that deserves credit for wisely not attempting to bite off more than it can chew, even if it does at times feel somewhat undercooked.
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