Daniel Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley is supposed to be Penn Badgley’s revelatory moment as an actor. Playing singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, Badgley sings live on set and sounds eerily similar to Buckley as he goes into his upper register and harmonizes in abstract ways. Unfortunately, Badgley’s performance ultimately feels empty, as does the film as a whole.
Despite being focused on real, complicated people with tragic lives (both at the height of their fame, Jeff’s father Tim died at 28 from an accidental overdose and Jeff drowned at 30), the film never allows the two Buckleys to come across as fully realized characters.
It’s 1991 and Jeff Buckley is living in California, a struggling musician. Out of the blue, he gets a call asking him to come to Brooklyn to perform in a tribute concert for his father, who he only met twice in his lifetime. Jeff is bitter about the whole situation – celebrating the man who abandoned him – but he agrees to play nonetheless. While he is there, he is guided musically by his two of his father’s former bandmates, played by William Sadler and Frank Wood. He also forms an immediate connection with the venue’s intern, Allie (Imogen Poots, playing a fictionalized character) and she helps him come to terms with being his father’s son.
Jeff’s story of prepping for the tribute concert is intercut with Tim’s (Ben Rosenfield) trip from California to New York at the start of his career in the 1960s.
Algrant makes the decision in the film to compare the two ill-fated Buckleys when they each arrive in New York, mainly framed around Jeff’s decision to take part in his father’s tribute concert. While this point of comparison is definitely understandable, and the tribute concert is an interesting moment in Jeff’s life, it doesn’t do much to give any insight into who either Buckley was. The portrayal of each of them here remains hollow, never breaking through the surface level. Both Tim and Jeff are just sensitive guys who play music here, and that is simply not enough.
Much of the film hinges on Badgley’s performance as Jeff. As noted, Badgley sounds very much like him – he has a beautiful singing voice and is able to emulate the subtle vocal nuances that Jeff was famous for. This is evident, especially in the final concert scene as Jeff performs Tim’s songs – Badgley sells this final performance quite well. However, mostly because of the script’s characterization, Badgley’s emoting seems forced to the point that its’s awkward to watch. In one scene in particular, Jeff and Allie go to a record store where he goes through all the albums and loudly gives snippets of performances of each, ranging from jazz to blues to rock. Badgley almost seems to be grasping at straws here – his body is moving frantically, his voice is hitting interpretive rhythmic highs, but something behind his eyes is lacking. It’s like the record player’s on, but nobody’s home.
That said, it would be interesting to see what Badgley could do with another dramatic role – it’s difficult to pinpoint where the problems with him as the lead started and the very flawed script ended. Poots is an up-and-comer, and a very talented actress, and she does what she can as the composite love interest, Allie. Though a “falling in love” sequence of the two frolicking in Brooklyn is eye-rollingly twee. Allie zigs and zags and Jeff walks straight. Obviously a metaphor for their personalities, Allie’s function in the film is to get Jeff out of his shell. To live a little. But she doesn’t, really.
There’s also very little of the artistic process seen here,other than Jeff riffing with his father’s bandmates (who are curiously never seen as young men in the flashbacks).
Given the real life material behind it, Greetings from Tim Buckley comes off as a huge missed opportunity. Hearing the Buckleys’ music and seeing it performed is, of course, a pleasure. That music came from two very different, very intriguing men, but sadly in Greetings, we never truly get to know either one.
The Upside: The Buckleys’ music is pleasant to hear on film and Penn Badgley’s vocal performance is quite impressive…
The Downside: …but the rest of his performance is severely lacking. Buckleys Tim and Jeff come off as hollow characters and the film is structured fairly poorly.
On the Side: British singer-songwriter Kate Nash plays a musician in the tribute concert, somewhat disguised by a crimped, black pageboy wig.
Greetings from Tim Buckley is currently available on VOD and will open theatrically starting May 3rd.