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The haunting generational story of rock legends Tim Buckley and his son Jeff, the first dead of an overdose at 28, the second drowned in a swimming accident at 30, is respectfully retold in Greetings from Tim Buckley. The attraction is Penn Badgley‘s vibrant break-out performance as Jeff Buckley, who in the course of a tribute concert to his father comes to some kind of terms with his strong love-hate feelings for his father. Not just for fans, though there are of course an army of them, director Dan Algrant’s lyrical recreation of a father-son relationship seen over time, through memory and music, has a sense of urgent originality that works even apart from its great Tim Buckley score.
It’s a hard story to tell, though, since the two barely knew each other. Leaping forward from his two previous films, Naked in New York and People I Know, Algrant and his co-scripters Emma Sheanshang and David Brendel find a smart solution by setting the action during a 1991 tribute concert to Tim in St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, with flashbacks to his heyday in the Sixties. The spotlight, however, is on the then-unknown Jeff, a natural raw talent waiting to explode.
In California, Jeff gets a call from the New York concert organizer, asking him to attend the tribute to his father, “Greetings from Tim Buckley.” Whether he’ll get to perform himself will be decided later. At rehearsals in Brooklyn, he hooks up with Allie (Imogen Poots), a pretty singer working as a concert intern or, as he dubs her, a “slave.” He’s just the opposite, pulling her out of the office and down the street like a magnet. His extraordinary musical gift is first unveiled when he gives an impromptu performance in a record store, brilliantly imitating singers on the albums, and ending up in contortions on the floor in front of the bemused customers.
But this is just his happy, funny, uninhibited side; Jeff’s sad side and the issues he carries around with him are a dark under-current. It doesn’t help that everyone keeps exclaiming how much he looks like Tim. When a musician who knew his father reveals that Tim would sneak into Jeff’s house at night to stare at the baby, he shrugs it off angrily.
Algrant keeps Jeff’s emotional work in the foreground as his romance with Allie playfully — and narratively, rather unnecessarily — advances. At one point during rehearsals, they suddenly take a long train trip to a town where Tim once lived, and Jeff seems profoundly shaken when he visits his boarded-up house. With the cool mischievousness and dark good looks of a young James Franco, Badgley has a seductive energy that always seems to be about to go someplace dangerous, but in this case Allie shakes him out of his mood and they return to New York.
Then there is Tim himself and his fear of closeness, played so delicately by Ben Rosenfield he defies judgement: soulfully singing in small bars, leaving Jeff’s mother for a girl named Jainie, sharing a motel bed with another girl while Jeff is being born.
The film couldn’t help but end on the concert in St. Ann’s, with renditions of autobiographical songs like I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain and Song for Jainie. When Jeff takes the mike, the house comes down and a star is born. This iconic scene dovetails so well into Jeff’s personal journey towards his father that it doesn’t really matter what an obvious finale it is.
One frustrating thing is the absence of Jeff’s music in the film – only heard in a few tantalizing riffs with his future songwriter Gary Lucas (Frank Wood). Instead, Algrant reminds the viewer that Tim cut nine albums in his short life; Jeff recorded only one. But certainly talent cannot be measured that way.
Poots has a strong screen presence as Jeff’s elusive soulmate, though one wonders if her taste for alcohol is there to make her the muse of Lilac Wine. Andrij Parekh’s lighting and the edgy, expressive hand-held camera give a New York moodiness to the film.
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentation), Sept. 9, 2012.
Production companies: Smuggler Films, A To Z Productions
Cast: Penn Badgley, Ben Rosenfield, Imogen Poots, Frank Wood, Jennifer Turner, Kate Nash
Director: Dan Algrant
Screenwriter: Emma Sheanshang, Dan Algrant, David Brendel
Producers: John N. Hart Jr., Patrick Milling Smith, Amy Nauiokas, Fred Zollo
Executive producers: Ben Limberg, Colin Corgan, Brian Carmody, Jill Footlick
Director of photography: Andrij Parekh
Production designer: John Paino
Costumes: David Robinson
Editor: Bill Pankow
Music: Tim Buckley
Sales Agent: Celluloid Dreams
No rating, 103 minutes.
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