The Buckley Curse

Greetings-From-Tim-Buckley-DVD-FFOR A BRIEF moment last week, I was genuinely excited. An old friend, separated by time and the tyranny of distance, Facebook-messaged me, offering to send me the DVD of Greetings From Tim Buckley, a movie I last heard about when it was still in production.

My friend had imported said movie, and having viewed its contents, was happy to send it to an old friend who just happened to be an ardent fan of both father and son, Tim and Jeff Buckley.

I was surprised to learn that the film had seemingly gone straight to DVD. Movies that never make it to cinemas are traditionally considered turkeys, and I did have an uneasy feeling in my gut, but for once, I let my enthusiasm rule, suppressing my instinct to expect the worst.

Within minutes, I was groaning and curling up with embarrassment, and cursing my old friend, who I imagined cackling away in amusement, a large cigar lolling from his lips and a pair of blood-red horns fastened to his egomaniacal head with stretchy nylon ties.

Greetings From Tim Buckley turned out to be the worst dramatised music film I have ever seen, period, and I’ve seen some crackers: Iron Butterfly’s Music Madness, Bette Midler’s The Rose, Barbara Streisand’s A Star Is Born

Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley
Penn Badgley as Jeff Buckley
Music bios are terribly hard to pull off. Writing a book is easy, because all you have to do is imagine the characters that are being drawn singing the music that you know and love (or love to hate). But filming a music bio is almost impossible to pull off. Think of just about any dramatised life story of a music icon, from Tina Turner to Ray Charles to Johnny Cash, and they all suck. Most of them are packed to the gills with flaws (inaccuracies, ridiculous lines, story lines that may be interesting part but almost always end in death or boredom), but the big problem is that you simply can’t get an actor to convincingly portray a singer. It can’t be done.

Oliver Stone did surprisingly well with Jim Morrison with his The Doors, possibly because Val Kilmer was a passable Morrison visually, and Stone had such great visual flair. That, and the fact that both Morrison’s brief career and Stone’s filmmaking style were/are larger than life. Stone was also lucky he didn’t have to make a real bio covering someone’s life, something else that’s never, ever convincing: you either hire different actors to portray the central character at 15, 30, 45 and 60, or you use special aging makeup that never really works.

The real Jeff Buckley
The real Jeff Buckley
The makers of Greetings From Tim Buckley must have thought they had gotten off the hook by creating a screenplay that centred on just a few days in Jeff Buckley’s life, and just a few years in Tim’s. On paper, it sounds like a sound idea: In 1991, Tim Buckley’s unknown son was invited to a New York multi-artist celebration of the 1960s singer-songwriter’s work. While rehearsing to appear in the show, young Jeff was faced with the rather substantial issues around his dead Dad, romanced by a gorgeous stage assistant, and finally, triumphed in performance with an exultant performance of his Dad’s music.

It must have also seemed like a good idea to flashback to the first couple of years of Tim Buckley’s career, to try and explain why the father left his wife and new baby son, Jeff, for a life on the road and a succession of other women.

Imogen Poots as Jeff Buckley's special friend
Imogen Poots as Jeff Buckley’s special friend
Anyone who followed Jeff Buckley’s too-short career knows by now that he was haunted by his super-talented but fated Dad, and that he never quite managed to deal with his rejection: Jeff only properly met his Dad once as a boy. You can feel that haunting in Jeff’s music and his extraordinary voice, and in songs like ‘Dream Brother’ with their explicit references to a father-son relationship that was never meant to be (Tim died of a heroin overdose in 1975).

So, it’s no surprise that the film attempts to examine this from both perspectives. Except that what it does instead is leaden and embarrassing in its inept script, fails to illuminate the two men and their non-relationship, and is an arch, pointlessly arty disaster that would have bored me rigid had I not been shaking from rage at the missed opportunity.

But the biggest cock-up is the most obvious one: the hiring of actors to try and sing like Tim and Jeff Buckley. How utterly stupid could you be? Even an idiot could tell that no-one on earth sings quite like either Tim or Jeff Buckley. The stupidity of that decision is rammed home further by the film’s intermittent use of live performances by the real Tim Buckley, so that when you hear the actor version of Tim Buckley sing, you just want to die. That’s not all: when you see the actor Tim Buckley, you want to crawl into a fetal position. Ben Rosenfield looks like an unexceptional all-American boy. There is nothing special about his looks. Compare that to the handsome/beautiful visage of the real Tim Buckley, a look that perfectly mirrors his remarkable voice: one that was by turns feminine and masculine, and outright freaky in its ability to swoop from baritone to a piercing falsetto.

Of course, we don’t get to hear much of that in Greetings From Tim Buckley, either, because the most interesting periods of Tim’s career (when he broke out of folk-rock and got into jazz and then dirty funk) haven’t happened yet. One thing is for certain: Rosenfield sings like a drain.

The fake Tim Buckley
The fake Tim Buckley
The actor portraying Jeff Buckley is rather good. Penn Badgley actually does bear a passable resemblance to Jeff, and has learned to mimic his singing rather well. But it is mimicry, and carries with it none of the emotional density of the real Jeff Buckley. And the lines the film makes him speak! If you took this film’s portrayal of Jeff Buckley seriously, you would think him a shallow, morose, self-obsessed bore with nothing much to say about anything. And sometimes I just wanted to hide under my seat. There’s a scene in a record store where ‘Jeff’ starts singing in a variety of ‘voices’. This may well have been based on a real occurrence, but the way it’s depicted you could imagine other customers fleeing the premises, and the staff calling for security.

Imogen Poots plays Jeff’s love interest. It’s easy to see his interest in her: she’s drop-dead gorgeous. But Jeff is a dowdy, penniless drifter with what seems to be little sense of reality, and it’s hard to even see what she would have seen in him.

The real Tim Buckley
The real Tim Buckley
It’s tempting to say that Greetings From Tim Buckley is a lost opportunity, but I don’t think anyone could have turned this into a half decent film, in retrospect.

What someone should really do is an epic documentary on Tim Buckley’s extraordinary 10 years in the public spotlight, and the incredible trajectory – unequalled in all of rock – he went through during that time, from flowery folk God to far-out free jazz extemporizer to the dirty white-boy funk of songs like ‘Get On Top’. And they should write Jeff Buckley in as a postscript, explaining his extraordinary potential, and that voice – as thrilling as Tim’s in its own way.

After watching Greetings From Tim Buckley, I was tempted to postulate that my old friend had some equally old, half-settled score to make with me, and that this was his punishment. But I don’t think so. I think he was probably as excited to see it as me, and similarly shocked, and just knew that I would have insisted on viewing it, even if I had advance warning of its utter worthlessness.

And one good thing came out of it. Because my wife watched the DVD with me, and we were both equally appalled by it, we decided to freshen up our perspective on Tim and Jeff Buckley afterwards by watching a few video clips of each of them performing. Wow. GARY STEEL

Tim Buckley on The Monkees’ TV show, 1967:

Tim Buckley in 1970:

Jeff Buckley in 1994:

6 Comments

  1. Hi Gary. Sure sounds terrible. Probably better to do a documntary than a biopic.
    But you didn’t like Walk The Line?
    Gainsbough (2010) was good – although you had to adjust to its theatricality. (Proof that straight-to-dvd doesn’t always mean turkey. It often just means subtitles.)
    24 Hour Party People?
    Control was alright wasn’t it? (if forgettable. Well, I’ve forgotten most of it)
    Ken Russell’s Lisztomania? – just kidding there …

  2. ps. The Runaways?

  3. Walk The Line? Better than average, but still didn’t quite do it for me. Hated 24 Hour Party People… it just seemed pointless. Was that the point? I would like to see Lisztomania after all these years. And some of Russell’s earlier classical costume dramas.

  4. I have seen only trailers for this movie on youtube and actually by the scene in the record store when they used what Buckley said during the show in Atlanta before Grace “sixties are bullshit etc..” I just wanted to vomit 🙁
    thanks so much for writing this review now I am definitely decided NOT to see this …and tbh you are actually my hero for that you could watch it from start to finish…

  5. Seriously? True the story was partly made up, like the relationship between jeff and his “special friend” but you can be a fan of Jeff and you can be a FAN of Jeff. Read every biography , watch every clip and interview, and if you know his movements of by heart, the dip he does when he shakes hands , the pull of his chin when he sings, you would know that is Jeff to an absolute T. Penn did an amazing job of portraying this and studying his movements, the only fault I found was the pitch in his speaking voice wasn’t high enough.
    How do I know this? I was a lovestruck twelve year old who stayed for quite a while in the hotel across from the club Jeff used to perform at in Memphis not long before he died. A little girl with a crush on the cool musician across the road.

  6. Jimmy, you didn’t comprehend my review. Please note, I wrote: “The actor portraying Jeff Buckley is rather good.” I praised his acting, and his mimicry of Jeff, but I slated the script they made him speak, and the ridiculous concept of making him mimic Jeff’s singing. It’s not that he’s bad, it’s that Jeff was great for a reason that simply can’t be copied by someone else. If they had to show singing, they should have overdubbed the real Jeff, but I guess they didn’t have permission. The performance parts would have been much better had they just used documentary footage. But the whole film is a horrid mess, so…

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