Wednesday, November 13, 2013


The First Goodbye: Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley

With some musical biographies, what you get out of them can depend on your familiarity with the people being discussed.  For example I thoroughly enjoyed Control, the film about Ian Curtis, the lead singer of Joy Division, and 24 Hour Party People, the story of that band's label, Factory Records, and its owner, Tony Wilson, though I can understand that they both might seem impenetrable to someone who wasn't that conversant with British post-punk. Similarly I loved the film Greetings From Tim Buckley but I understand where it might lose people who don't know anything about the careers of its subjects.  It helps if you know something about the lives of Tim and Jeff Buckley but even if you don't this is still a moving story about a young man trying to come out from the shadow of a famous deceased father and make it as his own man.

Tim Buckley was a wildly talented singer-songwriter of the 1960's with a multi-octave vocal range who started out as a folksinger but played around with psychedelia, jazz, avant-garde improvisation and rock and roll before his premature death in 1975 at the age of 27 from a drug overdose.  This film, however, is about his son, Jeff, who took up music himself and it chronicles what happened when he went to New York in 1991 to take part in a tribute concert to his father.

As the movie tells it, as soon as Jeff walks into the concert space, St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn, for his first rehearsal, everyone is astonished by his physical resemblance to Tim, something Jeff doesn't care to hear about.  He's still very resentful of the fact that his father spent most of his childhood touring in the company of various girlfriends while he and his mother sat home in California and that he saw Tim very few times before his death.

This has the potential to come out as rote sub-James Dean "hurt man-child" stuff but this film runs deeper. Penn Badgley, who plays Jeff, has a scary physical resemblance to him and does the role with a mixture of charm, anger and hurt that is touching.  It also helps that Badgley's singing voice comes damn close to Jeff Buckley's actual otherworldly wail. There is one scene in a record store where he sings everything from "The Twelfth Of Never" to T. Rex and Led Zeppelin while flipping through albums that will floor you even if you've never heard Jeff Buckley in your life. His scenes are contrasted with brief flashbacks of Tim himself, played by Ben Rosenfeld, doing shows in New York, hanging out with his band and girlfriend while his wife sits home 3000 miles away pregnant. The real Tim and Jeff Buckley did have a strong physical resemblance and that holds true for Badgely and Rosenfeld who have a noticeable similarity in their movements and manners. You see that Jeff is chanelling his father even when he tries to declare his independence from him.

Jeff finds some solace in the company of Allie, a young woman working on the concert, played by Imogen Poots,   Their scenes together feel playful and fresh, with romantic longings taking a back seat to the sight of two lonely kids reaching out for friendship.  The movie climaxes with the concert itself, where Jeff, after cringing at the mention of his father's name throughout the film, sucks it up, goes on stage and blows everyone away singing his father's "I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain", "Phantasmagoria In Two" and "Once I Was" in a glorious voice, coming into the full flowering of his talent. The film ends with Jeff saying goodbye to Allie after the concert and leaving New York, a very poignant moment if you know what lies ahead of him.

In real life. Jeff's performance caught the music industry's attention and two years later, he recorded the album Grace which eventually became a big hit. Sadly his life paralleled his father's to the end.  In 1997, he too died at an ungodly young age, accidentally drowning in the Mississippi River.

The film, directed by Daniel Algrant, is told with measured pacing and subdued colors but it is suffused with music. Tim Buckley's recordings are all over the soundtrack but the scenes after the concert switch to one of Jeff's recordings "Lilac Wine", signalling that he's laid his father's ghost to rest.  Various musical figures like the concert producer; Hal Willner and Tim's old guitarist, Lee Underwood, are played by actors but there is an appearance from a real figure in this story, guitarist Gary Lucas who became Jeff's bandmate after he moved to New York. There's a nice scene of he and Badgley playing each other guitar riffs in his apartment. Lucas playing figures that I think eventually turned up as some of the songs on Grace.

There is a moving story about a son making peace with his father's memory here. It's a shame that lack of general familiarly about the Buckley's work will probably keep many people from seeing it. Greetings From Tim Buckley is a movie worth seeing and if it leads you to check out either father's or son's music, so much the better.

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