When you think about it, it’s surprising that it’s taken this long to make a film about the Buckley family. The subject matter is cinematic gold: two doomed (and decidedly photogenic) singers, both possessed of angelic voices, devoted fan bases and plenty of tortured-artist mythology. Daniel Algrant’s Greetings From Tim Buckley goes for broke as far milking the Buckley story goes — it’s a semi-fictionalized biopic that manages to cram both father and son into one film, tying them together with the story of Jeff’s performance at a tribute concert for Tim, a moment when past and present meet in a cathartic performance that catapults Jeff to fame. It sound like it should work, but it doesn’t.
Despite what you might have read, Gossip Girl‘s Penn Badgley isn’t terrible as Jeff Buckley — in fairness, he’s not exactly Laurence Olivier, either, but he’s competent enough. He also does a rather impressive job of Xeroxing the younger Buckley’s distinctive vocal style. So no, he’s not the problem with the film, nor is the rest of the cast, who range from the similarly solid if uninspiring to the actually quite good.
The problem is that the film just doesn’t make you care enough about either Buckley to make for compelling viewing — if you accept Algrant’s portrayal, then the thing that father and son had in common beyond their musical talent is apparently that both were deeply irritating people. The director is to be congratulated for making some attempt at getting to grips with his subjects’ flaws, but perversely, the personality traits he illustrates only serve to mythologize the Buckleys further, vesting them with all sorts of tortured/mercurial artist clichés.
Both father and son, for instance, have a penchant for that great trope of movies with misunderstood heroes, i.e. the wordless charge off into the distance, destiny in their eyes, while mere mortals (in this case, long-suffering love interests) stand in impotent bewilderment and shout, “Wait? What are you doing?!” to their retreating shadow. The love interests in question are convinced enough of their respective Buckleys’ genius to put up with this shit; as a casual observer, you kind of find yourself wanting to slap them.
But even setting aside the rather unsympathetic nature of the characters, the story just doesn’t grab the viewer. The narrative intercuts between the past and the present, with not a great deal happening in either timeframe. Jeff gets invited to the concert for his father, clearly feels ambivalent about the whole thing, acts all tortured for a bit, takes an unscheduled trip upstate for some reason, and then comes back and plays a set that knocks everyone dead. Tim (Ben Rosenfield), meanwhile, drives a battered car from the West Coast to New York, complains about his wife, cheats on her, and, um, that’s it.
If this were a straight biopic, you could perhaps forgive the fact that the narrative’s not especially compelling. But the semi-fictionalized nature of the film means that the story surely could have been more fleshed out — Algrant himself told Rolling Stone last year, “I really tried to be as emotionally honest as I could be, as opposed to having to worry about truth.” Instead, Greetings from Tim Buckley is a film stuck between truth and fiction, beholden to some sort of notion of historical accuracy without actually functioning as an insight into history.
It’s perhaps no coincidence that the most compelling and fleshed-out character is the one who’s entirely fictional: Jeff’s love interest, Allie (Imogen Poots), who he meets at rehearsal for the Tim Buckley tribute concert around which the film’s narrative revolves. Liberated from the need to ground his writing in history, Algrant is able to create a character who’s (comparatively) three-dimensional and relatable, a character that Poots brings to life with a fine performance.
Conversely, the best Buckley-centric sequences are the ones that appear most grounded in historical fact. The presence of the real Gary Lucas playing himself suggests that the parts of the film where he meets Jeff are “real” — in one particularly interesting sequence, they sit at his apartment and jam out the rough sketch of what’d eventually become “Grace.” Similarly, Jeff’s triumphant performance at the tribute concert is genuinely emotive, and about the only time you find yourself really relating to his character.
Ultimately, the test of a film like this is whether the story is compelling enough to justify its existence. And curiously enough, the answer is “no”: if this film was a complete work of fiction, or if you had no idea who Jeff and Tim Buckley were, it’s doubtful you’d care enough about either character to sit through it. The semi-fictional narrative is a perilous undertaking, and while Algrant clearly has an affinity for his subjects, this comes off as celluloid Buckley fanfic. It’s a passable piece of escapism, but the market is still wide open for a proper biopic of either father or son.