TIFF ’12 Review: Dan Algrant’s “Greetings from Tim Buckley” Brings a Legend to Life

A surprisingly moving lead performance from Penn Badgley and low-key storytelling from director Dan Algrant make this snapshot from the tragically short lives of singer/songwriters Tim and Jeff Buckley...
Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley in Dan Algrant's film "Greetings from Tim Buckley"

If one entered the theater for “Greetings from Tim Buckley” having no knowledge of who Jeff Buckley was, it isn’t until the final title card of the film that you’d fully understand why it was important to spend the previous hour-and-a-half in his company, though surely you’d understand how it could be so pleasurable. This appears to be by writer/director Dan Algrant’s design, knowing full well that it would be futile to live up to the legend created by Buckley’s untimely passing at age 27 after recording just one completed album Grace, which left his beautiful, primal falsetto yet to be replicated before or since. Elegant and understated, that voice seems to have been a guide for Algrant’s treatment of Buckley’s story, one both too expansive and all too tragically short to attempt to capture in a regular-length feature. However, in paralleling just a brief moment in his career where he was on the cusp of finding that voice with the story of his father Tim, also a singer/songwriter who’s life was also cut short, it becomes a small film that tells a much larger story.

At times, that dedication to a lower key detracts from “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” which casually drops audiences into Brooklyn in 1991 where Jeff is asked to play at a benefit celebrating his late father, whose own history we see through flashbacks to Orange County in 1966 where Tim is coming off his self-titled debut and hits the road without his wife, pregnant with Jeff, in tow. As a result, no explanation is necessary when Jeff responds to the invite over the phone from the St. Anne’s Art Project in Brooklyn by saying politely, “I didn’t really know my father.” Still, the opportunity to perform at a high-profile event tempts him to New York where he is surrounded by friends and former session partners of his dad while we see his dad struggling with the same issues of growing into the person he wants to be, albeit one who was more prolific in both his ability to record albums and in his number of lovers.

That imbalance between the more free-wheeling father and the more tightly-wound son creates problems for “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” since as you get to know Jeff more, you feel as though you know Tim less, the limits of the tale told through two snapshots ultimately being exhausted in the latter’s case. Jeff, as portrayed in a surprisingly live-wire turn by “Gossip Girl” star Penn Badgley, is allowed to exist in the present of the film, coming out of his shell gradually and figuring out his own distinctive sound and even his way with women as he slowly pursues a relationship with one of the concert organizers in New York (Imogen Poots). But Tim (Ben Rosenfield) is trapped in the sun-soaked moment Algrant and co-writers David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang choose for him, speaking to a similar instance of uncertainty in life as Jeff is experiencing, but with the audience certain of where Tim will end up, the approach of never quite seeing the enigma in full bloom doesn’t work as well as it does in Jeff’s thread. Still, the film’s third act, which consists mainly of the benefit concert that Jeff is invited to play where the music of both men takes over, is able to reach a crescendo that pays both sides off to a satisfying degree.

For fans of the younger Buckley, which includes myself, that alone should be cause for celebration (and relief), but in fact, the film should work as well for non-devotees because Algrant, who previously created suspense out of PR spin for the underrated Al Pacino thriller “People I Know,” has once again found a unique way into potentially overwhelming subject matter and has a lead in Badgley who can be relaxed as the white tees Buckley was known for wearing with the constant threat of becoming electrifying, with one scene in a record shop where Jeff is liberated from civil silence and begins to sing his album selections particularly riveting. While “Greetings from Tim Buckley” is consistently more modest, it is nonetheless bound to inspire imitators to sing the next time they pull the Buckleys’ albums from shelves.

“Greetings from Tim Buckley” does not yet have U.S. distribution.

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