Greetings from Tim Buckley isn’t a standard biopic by any stretch. It takes a low key and more personalized approach to a single moment in the life of an artist instead of creating any sort of all encompassing melodrama or pop culture history lesson. It’s a welcome approach that serves the film’s look at a son almost being forced into living up to his father’s legacy, but it’s way too slight and specialized to appeal to many viewers outside of those who really love the music of Buckley and the film’s subject, his son Jeff.
Daniel Algrant (directing his first feature in a decade following People I Know) takes a fictionalized look at then up and coming musician Jeff Buckley (played here by Penn Badgley) as he’s asked to come to New York from L.A. to play a 1991 tribute concert for his father. Struggling enough with his own music at the time, the last thing Jeff wants to do is delve too deeply into the relationship he had with his father. As glimpsed in flashbacks, Tim was a hard liver that really did wrong by his son and his family most of the time simply by never being around. It’s immaterial that Jeff isn’t a huge fan of his father’s music. He just really doesn’t want to pay tribute to a man whose ghost will haunt his new career no matter how different he tries to be.
Those familiar with the lives of Jeff and Tim will know that in 1991 Jeff was still a couple of years away from making his own groundbreaking album (Grace) and tragically several years away from his own death in 1997. Both father and son are cautionary tales when it comes to talking about how immature and aloof rock stars can be about their own day to day lives, but the film’s focus is squarely on one young man trying to come into his own.
As Jeff, Badgley gives an incredibly performances that’s both playful and soulful. We can see how his father’s good willed romanticism of the world around him has rubbed off on his son. It’s a testament to Badgely that he’s able to play Jeff as someone who can realize this and pull back at the last second. He’s always remembering why he never really liked his father, and he uses that to gradually turn this show that brings together a lot of Tim’s friends into a proving ground and his own personal exorcism. (It’s not without irony that said concert takes place in a church.) Badgely does more than an impression of Buckley’s hair, voice, and mannerisms. He’s genuinely getting to the man behind the myth.
It’s just so disappointing that the rest of the film never follows suit. If the viewer isn’t already familiar with Tim or Jeff’s work there’s absolutely no way into Algrant’s film whatsoever. There’s isn’t an establishing of who either of them were, and if you don’t know it’s easy to see how caring about either of them would be a near impossible task. At one point during the viewing of one of Tim’s archival performances there are actual pop ups to explain who he was in the first place. It comes just before the halfway point of the film and it’s openly mocked because Algrant and his two co-writers seem to subscribe to the notion that this film is for fans only.
Even going along that sort of hipsterish “if you don’t know who this is, you shouldn’t be here” track, the film still fails. The reasons for Jeff even really agreeing to do the show are so ill defined they practically aren’t even there. The show would go on to launch the young man’s career, but aside from brooding about his dad, he clearly never wanted to be there in the first place. An attempt to give him a romantic relationship with one of the concert producers (played nicely by Imogen Poots) takes up huge chunks of the story without ever going anywhere interesting, becoming filler material for a film that needs more substance and emotional weight than pointless asides.
The concert does a lot to establish Jeff Buckley’s role in shaping his father’s legacy, but there’s never much reason to care. Aside from some decent performances and getting to hear a lot of Tim’s music on the soundtrack (some of which is dreadfully misused in some of the film’s most hamfisted moments), there’s no way to say that this isn’t more interesting or entertaining than a documentary on the same subject would have been. We wouldn’t have Jeff’s voice to tell us how he was feeling, but there would be an actual story. The film is just too threadbare and navel gazing to generate more than passing interest even for fans.