deaths, especially when they come at an early age, have
a tendency to turn human beings into instant icons,
embalming them in the mythology of lyrics, performances,
photos, quotations — and suicide notes where applicable.
Jeff Buckley, the supremely gifted singer-songwriter,
drowned in May 1997 — at age 30, only one record (the
towering Grace) into a career flush with promise — the
details made it sound like a death staged by a rock hagiographer.
fully clothed into the Wolf River in Memphis, where he
was preparing to work on his follow-up album, Buckley
was swept up in the wake of a passing boat and disappeared
into the night. It was as if this sensitive soul was too
fragile and precious to stay on this earth for long. Or
so goes the narrative, anyway.
nothing else, Greetings from Tim Buckley, a thoughtful
biopic about the musician's coming to terms with his absent
father, takes more interest in Jeff Buckley the man than
in Jeff Buckley the myth. There are overlaps between the
two, of course, including some of the heedless spontaneity
that cost him his life, yet the Buckley that emerges here
isn't the sainted martyr with the golden voice but a lonely,
temperamental, at times deeply narcissistic young man
who cannot escape from his father's legacy. The faster
he tries to run away, the more eerily doomed he seems
to repeat it.
Dan Algrant and co-writers David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang
smartly frame the action three years before Buckley released
Grace and even before the singer grew a minor cult following
as a cover act in various clubs around Manhattan's East
Village. A still-unknown quantity, Buckley (Gossip Girl's
Penn Badgley, in an uncanny performance) gets summoned
to participate in a tribute concert to his father, Tim,
another singer-songwriter who died young; despite having
encountered his father only twice in his life, Buckley
agrees to do it, but inevitably he'll have to confront
a deep-seated emotional pain that still throbs persistently.
from Tim Buckley heads down parallel tracks, comparing
and contrasting the younger Buckley's heartache in Manhattan
— which reveals itself in a romance with a concert worker
(Imogen Poots) — with flashbacks of his equally handsome
and talented father (Ben Rosenfield) on the road, drifting
from bed to bed while Jeff's mother takes care of him.
One of the elder Buckley's bandmates (William Sadler)
tells the younger that his dad used to slip into junior's
room at night and watch him sleep in his crib, but it's
cold comfort for a young man still simmering with resentment.
strongest scene in Greetings from Tim Buckley finds Jeff
in a record store, picking through old vinyl while singing
his own private tune, his quivering voice moving up and
down the register at higher and higher volume. The more
he sings, the less conscious he becomes of his surroundings:
It's a spectacle at once beautiful, inspiring, embarrassing
and vain, and it encapsulates everything noble and regressive
about a man who lived without a filter.
Algrant has a good feel for the vagaries of musical collaboration
— the behind-the-scenes glimpses of the Tim Buckley tribute
are among the film's most credible moments — Greetings
from Tim Buckley wallows so thoroughly in its daddy issues
that it ultimately lacks much dimension. Algrant establishes
early and often that Jeff isn't much different than the
father who abandoned him, which gives most of the flashback
scenes a grinding redundancy.
redeems the film, ultimately, are Jeff's poignant efforts
to unburden himself of his father's oppressive legacy
and stand on his own merits. He boasts early on that he
knew from a young age that he had more talent than his
dad — the gorgeous soundtrack suggests that's vanity talking
— but either way he can perform any one of the old man's
songs by heart.
his father's music is the only thing he's capable of hearing.