‘Greetings From Tim Buckley’ Review
It's one of the finest origin stories in (not so) recent pop culture history. A well-funded arts organization plans a tribute for a long dead singer-songwriter. They invite his son, who never knew his father, who then takes to the stage, opens his mouth and, wow, he can sing, too. Luckily the press was in the audience and that's how Jeff Buckley's career began.
Neither Jeff nor his father Tim Buckley are exactly household names but if you are a fan of what I call Public Radio Rock you are well familiar with their oeuvre. Tim was a soulful post-Dylan singer of the 1960s, Jeff was an energetic, emotional amalgam of a number of musical influences. I say "was" because they both died extremely young, leaving behind enough of a myth to get a movie like 'Greetings from Tim Buckley' made.
The bulk of the film is set during the rehearsals for the concert at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Church in 1991. The film gets the details right and refuses to dumb down. It expects you to know that a Hal Wilner production means something. It expects that glimpsing the cover of Led Zeppelin's third album is enough context for a non-verbal a cappella version for "Since I've Been Lovin' You." It is confident enough to refer to "Greensleeves" as a John Coltrane song and confident enough to drop the name "Nusrat" and expect people to know who the hell that is.
In terms of cred, 'Greetings From Tim Buckley' more than steps up to the plate. Having Penn Badgley in the lead is a major success as well. He nails Jeff's jazzy quaver that always threatened but never delivered dissonance. Ben Rosenfield's Tim doesn't do as much singing, but his lonely boy lost routine is effective in the short flashback scenes.
So for music fans, yes, there's enough to distract you from the fact that, sadly, there's really no story in this film. There are plenty of themes - father and son are compared and contrasted in some none-too-subtle ways - but in terms of forward-driving plot there is next to none. There's also a shoehorned love angle that is insufferable, especially when compared to the few exciting musical moments that indicate Jeff's nascent talent.
'Greetings From Tim Buckley' would actually work much better as a play. Most of the scenes play out in vague interiors, with the exception of a visit Jeff takes to his father's old house. And nothing really happens there anyway. In fact, viewers might be forgiven if they ask why everyone in this film is so damned morose all the time?
The characters on screen are far too distant so when Jeff is sobbing in his hotel room I wondered if a reel was missing and there was some drama left out. Intellectually I knew that Tim was supposed to be sad because he was abandoning his son, and Jeff was supposed to be sad because he was abandoned, but this was something I had to bring to the film - the situations and characters aren't effective enough to make these beats feel emotional.
As a fan of both of these performers (plus someone greatly nostalgic for the coffee house folk-rock scene of New York's early 90s) I'm a little bummed that this is what we get as a representative movie. Instead of seeing 'Welcome to Tim Buckley' you'd be better served poking around YouTube for 90 minutes to watch their performances.
'Greetings From Tim Buckley' premiered at the 2012 Toronto Film Festival.
Jordan Hoffman is a writer, critic and lapsed filmmaker living in New York City. His work can also be seen on Film.com, Badass Digest and StarTrek.com.