The very idea of producing a dramatic film about such beloved, tragic, and incomparably gifted people as Tim and Jeff Buckley might seem like a dubious venture, a bite that would be too big for any director and cast to chew. And yet Greetings From Tim Buckley is a beautiful, touching, electrically charged success, capturing the essence of these two adored musicians with a synergistic magic that, unbelievably, does them both justice.
The film uses a true story from the life of singer/songwriter Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgley) -- his preparation and performance at a tribute concert for his father, the late Tim Buckley (Ben Rosenfeld), in 1991. Over the span of a few days, Jeff is forced to contemplate the similarities between himself and the father he never really knew -- their uncanny, iconic visages, their hauntingly similar tenor voices, their shared musical genius, and their mutual ability to remain in the moment of artistic creation and expression 24 hours a day, not just while standing in front of a microphone or expertly manipulating a guitar. Meanwhile, Tim is seen two decades earlier on a journey that mirrors Jeff's, as he spends time on the road and learns via a late-night phone call that his semi estranged wife has given birth to his only son.
One of the many things that makes this movie so incredible is that Jeff doesn't confront his long-festering emotional confusion through heavy-handed speeches or overwrought melodrama; much of the largely internalized story is simply presented through music. Tim Buckley's original, earth-shockingly emotive songs provide more than enough narrative momentum for many affecting scenes with either father or son to play out almost without dialog. And in another smart move, any necessary exposition regarding Jeff's personal arc is handled through Before Sunrise-esque exchanges he has with a young woman he befriends while preparing for the concert, conversations that are always strikingly on point, but never too on the nose.
It also cannot be overstated how magically and completely Penn Badgley inhabits Jeff Buckley as a man and a musician. The mere fact that Badgley performed all of his vocals for the part live is reason enough to see the film, as Jeff Buckley had a rare, otherworldly voice and dexterous musical ability, both vocally and on the guitar -- and Badgley nails it with absolute perfection. He does this not only when he sings prearranged songs, but when he riffs and improvises during jam sessions, always with every ounce of Buckley's range, not to mention his strange and clever rhythmic and tonal choices. But even greater still, perhaps, is Badgley's overall characterization, which channels Buckley's unique personal mannerisms with such organic precision that we can sense the very physical and psychological undercurrents that they derive from. Often, Badgley conjures the singer's combination of energetic mania and laid-back California fluidity with what looks like total ease.
The narrative in Greetings From Tim Buckley only takes place during those few days leading up to the concert, so it's up to the audience to know what lies ahead for Jeff: the groundbreaking solo album, the untold critical acclaim, and the deeply tragic untimely death that befell him, drowning in a river he impulsively dove into just on the heels of his plans for a sophomore album. But the odd mixture of doom and grace that would follow Jeff in life is still present in the movie, lending a further sense of beauty and loss to what would already be one of the most moving musical stories told on film.