Daniel Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley is a feature of this year’s Sydney Film Festival – a festival humming with music-related films. From portraits of The Warumpi Band’s George Rrurrambu Burarrawanga and a Flemish bluegrass family to a doco on an orphanage in Angola where hardcore punk helps war-shocked kids release their angst, there is music everywhere this year.
In many ways – not least the casting of Gossip Girl heartthrob Penn Badgely in the lead role – Greetings from Tim Buckley is maybe the most conventional of the lot. Centred around the 1991 New York tribute concert to 60s cult-hero Tim Buckley that launched the career of his estranged son, Jeff Buckley, the film often looks almost a little good to be true.
Even though Jeff Buckley was one handsome bohemian, Badgely’s geometric jaw and stratospheric cheekbones are almost too much. The same goes for co-lead Imogen Poots (28 Days Later) as NYC art-chick Allie – in fact, everyone in the movie who isn’t a grizzled old hippie muso is just a liitle bit too clear-skinned and fair-browed.
Penn Badgely as Jeff Buckley
Beyond that, Algrant’s screenplay (written with David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang) builds a simple story of a son who missed his father as he was growing up. Asked to perform his father’s songs at the 1991 tribute staged by Hal Willner at NYC’s Church of St Ann, the then-little-known Jeff agrees. As rehearsals grind on, the perpetual comparisons with Tim Buckley wear Jeff down and deep-scarred resentments rise to the surface.
Pop culture rarely lets the facts get in the way of a good story – and so it is with the story of Tim and Jeff Buckley. Jeff only met his father twice in his life – once when he was one and again when he was eight, briefly. Much is made in Rock history of their remarkable (spooky!) similarities: the fact they looked so alike, and sounded so alike etc etc. Rock history, like many convenient histories, seems to ignore the plain facts – in this case the plain facts that they actually looked nothing alike and sounded nothing alike (even though, coincidentally, they were both astonishing vocalists).
Imogen Poots as Allie
The only undeniable similarity between the two is the adventurous nature of their music. Tim Buckley’s late 60s prolific output (nine studio albums prior to his death at 28) ranged from humping and pumping Stones-flavoured barroom rock to the ‘unlistenable’ (and quite brilliant) avant-garde experiments of albums such as Starsailor. Almost thirty tears later Jeff Buckley only put out one album – the era-defining Grace – which was brimming with jaw-dropping originality.
Greetings from Tim Buckley sees Jeff three years before Grace, and is intercut with flashbacks to Tim Buckley’s rise in the 60s. Boho dives such as the Café Wha are beautifully recreated, as is the 1991 tribute concert in St Ann’s.
Small details divert and irk, though. During a scene where Jeff and guitarist Gary Lucas (coolly played by Frank Wood) jam on what would become Grace’s title track, the headstocks of their guitars – a Stratocaster and a Telecaster – have the ‘Fender’ logo taken off, due apparently to brand protection.
In a record store, digging for vinyl with Allie, Jeff hugs and kisses a copy of the Led Zeppelin III LP before falling to the floor and singing garbled almost-lyrics from the album. He tells her everything from the 70s was ‘big big bullshit – except for ONE thing’. That One Thing is obviously Led Zeppelin (Buckley drowned in 1997 after walking into a river at night singing Led Zep’s ‘Whole Lotta Love’) but he can’t say it – the Zep lawyers might be circling.
In this litigation-stupid world, this product un-placement pokes some holes in the veracity of the story. This may be trainspotting but anyone who is moved to go and see a story about a 60s freakout cat and his Boho genius son just eats up details far, far more trivial than this.
The heroic arc of the story culminates in the Tim Buckley Tribute Concert which Algrant nails down on all levels: musically, theatrically, emotionally – watch out for Frank Bello thoroughly enjoying himself as NYC proto-punk Richard Hell.
Ben Rosenfield as Tim Buckley
Penn/Jeff’s rendition of the beautiful Tim Buckley song ‘Once I Was’ is a time-stopping moment in an otherwise slightly too-neat dramatic climax.
In fact, one of the finest features of the film is the heavy use of Tim Buckley’s music – spacey, deep, 60s fragrant and unlike any other singer-songwriter before or since – in favour of Jeff’s more hard-edged 90s mojo. Let’s hope a whole new generation is turned on to his back catalogue – ‘Song to the Siren’, ‘Morning Glory’ and so much more by Greetings from Tim Buckley.
Greetings from Tim Buckley will be screened on Friday June 7, 9:45 pm at Event Cinemas George Street 4 and on Saturday June 15, 4:30pm at Event Cinemas George Street 8.
Published May 2013 on megaphoneoz.com