Toronto Film Festival: As the fallen indie rock idol Jeff Buckley, Penn Badgley rocks it (and nails it) in 'Greetings from Tim Buckley,' a seductive piece of musical mumblecore
Even during his one brief moment in the sun, Jeff Buckley was the quietest of rock idols. He had the voice of an angel, and he would stretch that voice out, high and tremulous and almost unearthly in its delicacy, his rapid vibrato making him sound, at times, like a human theremin. When he sang a song like Nina Simone’s great “Lilac Wine,” he lingered on phrases and gave them an indulgent vocal caress, slowing the already slow song way, way down, as if he were trying to merge with each note, each phrase of soft despair. This wasn’t just singing — it was woozy, almost jazzy psychodrama. Yet Buckley did it with flair, and with so much sinuous sex appeal that he transformed indulgence into a new form of rock cool.
Jeff Buckley released his one and only album, Grace, in 1994, and three years later, when he was getting ready to record his second album, he drowned in the Wolf River, in Memphis. He was only 31, and his death was an accident. But did he die, on some level, due to karmic demons? He was the son of the ’60s/’70s folk-rock cult star Tim Buckley, who abandoned him from the moment he was born (Jeff saw his father only a few times), and Tim, too, had died young — of a drug overdose, in 1975, when he was 28. Was the son fulfilling the destiny that he thought his father had laid out for him?
There is enough hidden family craziness, and 2:00 a.m. East Village cool, in Jeff Buckley’s story to make it obvious why a great many young actors have wanted to play him. Now one of them has — quite remarkably. In Greetings from Tim Buckley, Penn Badgley, from Gossip Girl, wears his dark hair in a high, coiffed, ’50s-on-acid pompadour, and he carries himself with the kind of spooky self-possession that says: “If I’m this possessed, just imagine how I might possess you.” At the same time, he’s slack and wary in the hipster style, with a passivity that’s really his way of insisting that you always come to him. Badgley, with tawny skin and popping eyes, looks like Johnny Depp with a touch of John Mellencamp. He’s a great camera subject (and a great singer — he does an eerily perfect impersonation of the Buckley wail), but what draws you to him in this movie is his private, almost invisible woe.
The entire film takes place over the three or four days leading up to the tribute concert for Tim Buckley that was held, in 1991, at St. Ann and the Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn Heights. Jeff, who at this point is a largely unknown California musician, has agreed, reluctantly, to perform at the concert, but from the outset it’s clear that he’s still silently raging against his father, who was never there for him. Greetings From Tim Buckley is a melancholy wisp of a movie, almost an anecdote, really. Jeff shows up at St. Ann’s (where the scruffy-genteel middle-class boho organizers and musicians really do seem like genuine scruffy-genteel middle-class boho etc.), and he meets a girl there, Allie (the lovely Imogen Poots), whom he takes an instant fancy to. For a couple of days, they have a hipster courtship — which is to say, they’re too cool to do anything like go on a date, or reveal themselves directly in conversation. They just hang out, rambling around the St. Ann’s neighborhood, drinking soft drinks or (in her case) whiskey, at one point taking a train upstate, where Jeff wants to check out the house in which his father once lived.
At this point, a full disclosure. My good friend David Browne, the former EW music writer, is the author of Dream Brother, the haunting double biography of Jeff and Tim Buckley that came out in 2001, and Browne’s book is the basis for a second Jeff Buckley film that has yet to be shot. (It will be directed by Amy Berg, the brilliant documentarian who made Deliver Us from Evil and the forthcoming West of Memphis, and it’s to star Reeve Carney, the lead actor from the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.) Dream Brother has no official connection to Greetings from Tim Buckley — except that the director, Daniel Algrant, has basically ripped off the book’s structural design, alternating episodes of Jeff with episodes of Tim from years before, to create the sensation that this father and son who never knew each other and who both died tragically young are spiritually communing across the decades.
It’s a device, I have to say, that works incredibly well here. As Tim, whose traveling-musician scenes all take place in 1966 (the year Jeff was born), Ben Rosenfield sports a fuzzy Dylan white-boy Afro, and he has a face so cherubic that it’s shocking to register that this troubadour father, for all his ambition, is really just a boy, so much younger than the son we’ve been watching. Rosenfield gives Tim a rakish, straight-talking appeal. At the same time, when Jeff is born, an event that seems to have no meaning to Tim beyond the phone call he gets from his mother telling him of the news, we behold the real dark side of the ’60s: not the drugs, or even the chaos, but the selfishness that could allow someone like Tim Buckley to walk away from his family destiny.
And yet…he was a stunning artist. The filmmakers didn’t get the legal rights to use any of Jeff Buckley’s music, but Tim’s music floods the soundtrack, and if ever there was a solution to the lo-fi aesthetic of mumblecore, it’s songs like this. They give the movie a golden shimmer. In Greetings from Tim Buckley, Tim’s legendary status as a musician, and the plainspoken beauty of his melodies, hovers over Jeff like an ambivalent cloud. Jeff, if he chooses, can keep rejecting his father — or the ghost of his father. But if he does so, he’ll also be rejecting a part of his own soul, and maybe the best part of himself: the tremulous, yearning voice that echoes across a generational chasm. The movie, which ends with the tribute concert (staged with extraordinary authenticity — it truly sounds like the kind of soulful ragtag music you’d hear in a punk-hippie church in Brooklyn), is really about Jeff deciding to become a musician by accepting the Tim in himself. There’s a very moving moment near the end when, on stage, he gives a brief hug to Lee Underwood ((William Sadler), the musician at the concert who knew his father best, and we realize that at that moment, Jeff is really hugging Tim. Right then, right there, he alters destiny.
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