Sydney Film Festival: Greetings From Tim Buckley

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No applause here tonight. Maybe you’ve been to festival films where no one has clapped, but I can only think of maybe one other (the very weird Faust from last year) – and even then, I’m not so sure. Applause at the festival – it’s customary. It’s the done thing. But tonight, silence.

There are reasons behind the silence. This is a movie centred on musicians Jeff Buckley and his father Tim, but with only a trace of Jeff’s music. It is, allegedly, a biopic, but one that’s seemingly made for people already familiar with these artists. It doesn’t really put anything in context. Its script is anaemic. It meanders about...

And yet I was happy to meander along with it. On the plus side, there’s atmosphere in Greetings From Tim Buckley, the filmmakers effortlessly capturing two very different time slices – the early ‘90s of Jeff Buckley, and the ‘60s/’70s era of Tim. Despite its many flaws, the film’s heart is in the right place. When all the meandering’s said and done, it moves you with a beautiful final scene.

The American press was full of accolades for the star, Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley – who amazingly captures Jeff’s virtuoso voice. The film itself, however, was given less love than Badgley. Good as he is, Badgley’s Jeff is miserably one-dimensional. The movie tries to hone in on Jeff and his relationship (or rather non-relationship) to the father he met, according to this film, twice. No doubt Jeff’s sense of abandonment is real, but there was a lot more going on with Jeff than what’s seen here. It’s not Penn Badgley’s fault, it’s the script’s (co-written by director Daniel Algrant, who’s helmed a few Sex & The City episodes plus the very average Naked In New York).

Jeff is portrayed with a chip on his shoulder about his iconic father, as he mopes around New York with romantic interest Allie (Imogen Poots). Poots’ character is fictional but the film is based on fact. It takes the lead up to Jeff’s appearance at a tribute concert for his father as the focus, flashing back to the ‘60s and ‘70s for glimpses into Tim’s life (excellently portrayed by Ben Rosenfield).

Some of the film was shot on location at the actual concert venue – St Ann’s Church in Brooklyn. It aids the atmospherics, as does the soundtrack of primarily Tim Buckley music. This is Jeff Buckley three years before his jaw-dropping debut album Grace would drive the rock press to their thesauruses. Back in 1991, he was still, in essence, an unknown – a ‘son of’ who had yet to display his mighty talent.

Shot in glorious shaky-cam (insert David Stratton joke here), the camera really twitches sometimes but the hand-held tactic adds to a doco-like authenticity – the New York scenes feel realistic, rooted in the early 1990s.

Both Tim and Jeff died tragically young. Apart from genes, what they really had in common was that they both made music that soared. And this is something that just doesn’t happen in Greetings From Tim Buckley. But that’s not to say the sounds are not enjoyable.

The filmmakers didn’t get the rights for Jeff’s music, but those behind the upcoming Mystery White Boy, which Jeff’s mother Mary Guibert is involved with, apparently does have the rights. If Algrant and co. had the rights for this, it would have been a different movie – in a way they’ve skirted around the fact they don’t have Jeff’s music admirably.

With Jeff’s music and a broader approach to his character, this could have been better. Yet there’s still something here – a heartfelt tribute to two staggering talents.  A sense of journey to other times and places.

But still, tonight no one clapped. Now, I wish that I had.

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