Like most musicians who died young, Jeff Buckley is a mystery. Buckley shot across the crowded alternative scene like a passing comet in the mid-1990s, leaving one album, Grace, in his wake and an unforgettable, haunting cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" that feels like it's been used in scores of films and television shows, before he drowned in a Memphis river in 1997. He's one of those artists that you know even if you don't know.
Greetings From Tim Buckley sets out to reveal some of the mystery by parachuting in to Buckley's life on the precipice of his rise to fame, following him as he journeys from California to Brooklyn to play in a tribute concert for his father Tim. I didn't know that the Buckleys were a musical family, but, much as with athletes, I'm not surprised that this sort of talent appears to be genetic.
Jeff, played by Penn Badgley, is reluctant to play at the concert at all because he barely knew his father at all; Tim also met with an early demise, overdosing on heroin and alcohol in 1975. Needless to say, Tim's absenteeism and untimely death has had a profound impact on the Jeff we see in this film, especially on the cusp of following in his father's footsteps. Like many a burgeoning rock star before him, Jeff distracts himself from all the emotional turmoil this concert has stirred up by spending time with a young woman, Allie (Imogen Poots), who has helped to put the concert together. In between rehearsals, Jeff and Allie flirt (at a record store, on a train to Poughkeepsie, on a street in Brooklyn), and she gently nudges him toward coming to terms with his father's legacy. Interspersed are vignettes of Tim (Ben Rosenfield) hustling from gig to gig in the 1960s, as if to try and explain why he was barely in Jeff's life.
Director Daniel Algrant has openly admitted that the tribute concert, which serves as the film's climax, is the only "true" part of the story, all the rest amounting to "conjecture." I'm all for artistic license, but if you're going to employ it, you might as well use it in an interesting way. This Jeff Buckley has daddy issues and a gorgeous muse in Poots. How, exactly, does that make him different from thousands of characters we've seen before on film or thousands of real-life artists, regular or otherwise, out there right now?
It doesn't, of course, and that's a shame because Buckley is such an enigmatic figure. His musical influences, as revealed in the the record store scene (by far the film's best) when he belts out songs from various artists, are broad and diverse. His death was purely accidental, not the result of some destructive streak. His very place in pop culture -- somewhere beyond indie sensation but just short of superstardom -- is even rare. Unfortunately, by the end of Greetings From Tim Buckley, we don't know much more about him than at the very beginning, other than that Badgley is a stunningly convincing vocal match for the man he is playing. There are some memorable nuggets here, but not enough to make it feel like a missed opportunity.