Sydney Film Festival Review: Greetings From Tim Buckley (USA, 2012)

Jeff Buckley may have sung “So Real” on his ground-breaking, Grace album, but the bio-pic of his and his dad’s lives concentrates on their mystical qualities. Maybe it was their untimely deaths – Jeff by drowning in Memphis’ Wolf River at age 27 and Tim at age 28 from an accidental overdose – that turned them into alt-rock and folk legends. But Greetings From Tim Buckley showcases their considerable talents by focusing on the ethereal and whimsical qualities that peppered their short, entwined lives.

The film is directed by Daniel Algrant and has two distinct halves. The first of these interleaved episodes is in 1966 and shows Tim Buckley (Ben Rosenfield) on the road as he records and plays in coffee houses, talks about the Vietnam war and has casual relationships whilst his pregnant wife is at home. The other half and arguably the story to get more attention is the one about Jeff. In 1991 he is called up to participate in a tribute concert for his Dad in Brooklyn. He is conflicted about his involvement in celebrating a man he “didn’t know”.

The junior Buckley has an enormous pair of shoes to fill as does Penn Badgely (Gossip Girl) who is playing his role. Jeff is haunted by his Dad and is constantly being compared to him due to the physical resemblance. But he is resentful and bitter towards the man that abandoned him (in some ways this is comparable to Julian Lennon) and they’d meet on only two occasions when Jeff was quite young. Badgely does an excellent job of capturing the temperamental artist plagued by melancholy and ambivalence . He really only lightens when he is paired up with a fictional love interest (Imogen Poots) who helps him “discover” his Dad.

The soundtrack relies heavily on Tim Buckley’s music. This almost reaches transcendental heights during the concert at the very end. Here, Badgely does an a capella cover of Tim’s biggest hit, “Once I Was”. You could say that this is where the younger Buckley’s career began- if not actually, then at least spiritually.

The film does try to draw parallels between the two Buckley’s lives and this often works. But at other moments this feels like they’re trying to push the story to fit into a tidy arc. One thing’s for certain though, the musicality of the two – and especially Jeff – is captured here beautifully. The highlights include Jeff jamming with his guitarist Gary Lucas (Frank Wood) and him messing around in a record store trying to impress the girl by impersonating seventies singers (Buckley had a four-octave range falsetto).

Both Badgely and Rosenfield look strikingly similar to the men that they’re portraying. Badgely has the cheekbones and rocks the stretched tee and shaggy hair look while Rosenfield is resplendent with his mane of brown, Dylan-like curls. Both also carry themselves with a sort of broody grace, which adds to the dark undercurrent of the film and helps hint at the tragedy that will befall these two creative and carefree spirits.

The biggest disappointment for Jeff Buckley fans will be the noticeable absence of his music (and only teasing with a few notes of it in the jam scene doesn’t quite cut it). The story also fails to devote time to his actual career and death. These things will apparently be covered in the Jeff Buckley-specific biopic Mystery White Boy, which is currently in production.

Also, covering the lives of not one but two such monumental legends in just 100 minutes means a lot of the story is left out and often the characters feel like they are not fully formed or properly realised. For fans wanting a more in-depth analysis of either troubadour, I suggest reading a biography or going back to the source material- either Grace or one of Tim’s nine studio albums.

Greetings From Tim Buckley is a sweet, sentimental and respectful biopic. It tells the lives of these two sensitive men with a gentle tone. While by no means comprehensive, it does create the appropriate emotions and mood and is a pleasant enough family drama. It’s a nice if not forgettable, meandering love letter to the Buckleys and often feels like a missed opportunity. Because it certainly had the potential to linger in your heart and mind just like those ten amazing albums. Now that’s grace…

Review Score: THREE STARS OUT OF FIVE.

Duration: 100 minutes.

This film screened as part of the Sydney Film Festival.

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