Greetings from Tim Buckley June 27, 2016
To be the child of a widely celebrated celebrity has always been a role I’ve been quick to sympathize with. Unless you have the fortunate genetics of Liza Minnelli or Michael Douglas, who somehow managed to live up to their parents’ statuses, a lifetime of comparison is an unavoidable fixture I’d expect to be hugely damaging to one’s sense of self. How hard it must be for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall’s children, who never rose to that type of fame and have, as a response, endured years of prodding questions regarding their parents’ personas, focus on their own achievements next to nothing. How hard it must be for someone like Colin Hanks, who has achieved respect in the industry but is nonetheless inevitably compared to his much worshipped father.
There are worse cases, many of which have to do with neglectful parenting that I won’t dwell too much upon — the private lives of stars, as sometimes compulsively captivating as they can be to read about, are none of my business, and, frankly, are not as worthy of attention as their work. But how rare it is to find an example of a parent-child torch passing in our media that actually matches in respectability.
One of those exemplifications comes in the form of Tim and Jeff Buckley, two singer-songwriters whose critical and commercial praise was cut tragically short before either were old enough to be considered has-beens. Tim was a defining pop artist of the 1970s, his career ending with a heroin overdose in 1975 at the tender age of 28. Jeff, an inimitable alt-rock poster boy of the 1990s, accidentally drowned a few months short of his 31st birthday.
Both, so admired and so acutely mythological, no longer seem to be of this Earth. With their names surrounded by a mist of legendary mystique, everything about them is rigorously romanticized, which maybe isn’t such a bad thing if you love their music and don’t want them to appear as beings made up of as much flesh and bone as you or me. But as someone who likes to move past a smokescreen of tragic perfection, I’m partial to the act of stripping away the trappings of idolization.
2013’s Greetings from Tim Buckley, a forgotten indie character study, is the kind of film that immediately appeals to me. Rather than take on the conventional format of a biopic, it takes fragments of non-fictional lives and finds the quintessence within them. Jumping back and forth between the existences of the father-son pair (we get to know Tim in 1966, the year of his son’s birth, and we are introduced to Jeff in 1991, the year he became a star through a tribute concert), the film is a crisply blasé study of two public figures whose reputations are anything but blasé.
Directed by Daniel Algrant, Greetings from Tim Buckley’s inclination toward naturalism is both its best component and its biggest flaw. It refreshingly moves away from keeping Tim and Jeff’s legacies intact, viewing Tim as a womanizing lost soul too unaware of his abilities to keep them sacred, and seeing Jeff as an idiosyncratic genius never quite able to recover from the always-present lore of his dad, whom he never met. As the film flips back and forth between the aforementioned periods of their lives (Tim is played by Ben Rosenfield, Jeff by Penn Badgley), a better sense of who these men were overcomes us. But because it’s so rooted in realism, forgettability is also to be had, especially because Rosenfield’s performance (and Tim’s story in general) is not as intriguing as Badgley’s: Badgley is so good that we nearly forget that he is not, in fact, Jeff Buckley.
So maybe there’s a reason why the film has been swept away over the years as a good but otherwise forgettable independent movie: while featuring a star-making performance from Badgley, nothing about it is urgent, and does not necessarily fixate on its central icons at their most cinematically interesting moments. Regardless, this is a sturdy revisionist biopic deserving of a look. Fans of the Buckleys will have a field day. B