I have a rather amusing, I guess, conflict that made it questionable for me to write about this movie in a professional context, which is that a very dear friend of mine in real life is portrayed as a character therein. Frank Wood, a stage actor of good repute, portrays the musician Gary Lucas, who I got palsy pal-sy with after reviewing a show of his in the late 1980s, God help me. I was not present at the Arts At St. Ann's concert that provides this fictionalization of a crucial point in the life of the late Jeff Buckley its climax, but I certainly knew about it, and I was around Gary and Buckley a bit during the latter's brief tenure in Gary's still-extant banc Gods and Monsters. Dan Algrant's movie juxtaposes scenes from the purposefully rootless life of Jeff Buckley's legendary cult-musician father Tim Buckley against a depiction of Jeff's trip from California to New York at the behest of the St. Ann's concert's organizers.
Movies about the broken bonds between fathers and sons are getting to be a thing with filmmakers of a certain generation nowadays, and Greetings From Tim Buckley is a rare one in that it didn't make me want to puke blood. In fact it is quite good, and one reason it's quite good, in my book, is something I've seen other critics give it a hard time about. The movie is content to let its characters breathe in their environments, and do what they do, and it never attempts to hammer a nail on which to hang their motivations. Which isn't to say it doesn't give you dots to connect. But I was actually fairly relieved, say, that the Tim Buckley depicted in this film (and nicely played by Ben Rosenfield) is never obliged to sit down and deliver a speech about why he's an absentee dad to his infant son. The character's behavior in an early scene, in which he detours into the desert on a road trip to a gig he's likely to be very late for as a result, does a pretty good job of encapsulating the restlessness that guided not just his behavior but his music. Similarly, the quiet exasperation that Penn Badgely's Jeff conveys as everyone he meets in New York immediately tells him how much he looks like his dad and then ignores him is quiet, full of impliction. Hints are dropped here and there by other characters about the kind of music Jeff had been involved with in California, and its disconnection from the spacey, jazz-inflected folk that his dad pioneered; but the feelings of alienation and eventual resolution are conveyed via the spaces the characters inhabit, and the spaces between them. In the vision concocted by Algrant with his co-screenwriters, David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang, confronting and then embracing the shadow cast by his father becomes Jeff's way of finally stepping out from under it. The character's conflicts get summed up pithily; while Jeff insists he can sing rings around his dad, there's also the fact that at the age Jeff was when he turned up for the St. Ann's concert, Tim had made some of his best and most enduring music.
Once these points are established, Algrant takes his time. Imogen Poots' concertmasters' helper character initially threatens Manic Pixie Dream Girl-hood, but her moody tentativeness gives her a dimension that plays well off of Jeff's what-am-I-doing-here suspension. Wood's version of Lucas is that of a bluff show-me-what-you-got pro who turns quasi-mentor. There's a neat bit where Lucas mentions to Buckley that he should put a lick he just sang "into one of your dad's songs" and Lucas registers the young singer's discomfort; and the scene in which Gary plays Jeff the instrumental that would become "Grace" is one of the better depictions of musical communication I've ever seen in any movie.
I haven't been crazy about Algrant's other pictures (and I suppose it bears disclosing that the director and myself both acted in the same film a few years ago, although we've never properly met), so I was kind of unprepared for the spare and genuinely poetic feel of Greetings From Tim Buckley. And its ballsy but not ostentatious bucking of standard biopic tropes. I was really taken with it; I think it's one of the outstanding movies of the year so far.
Now, does it depict how stuff really "went down?" I couldn't tell you entirely, and even if I could, the answer would still likely be "Yes and no." I was talking to Gary about it and I asked him, "You weren't rocking the hat back then, were you?" Like myself a connoisseur of hair loss, Gary in recent years has made a borsalino part of his presentation, but no, during his collaboration with Jeff he was going au naturel. Also, Gary in real life was a lot more immediately impressed with Jeff. As for myself, I thought Jeff was a great singer—how could you not—but in my admitedly rather limited interactions with him, I also found him a bit of a jerk, for lack of a better word. Once he embraced the fact that he was gonna be the most charismatic guy in the room 999 time out of a thousand, he embraced it with a vengeance, let's say. In any event it doesn't matter; Algrant has taken the real life bits, including a lot of wonderful music, and created a story of his own that's smart, engaging, and unexpectedly resonant. You should see it.