Despite what its title suggests, Daniel Algrant’s new drama, Greetings from Tim Buckley, concerns itself less with salutations than pointed farewells, the singer-songwriter not so much present as distantly looming, an absent father canonized in death by fans but resented for life by his only son. The lonely boy in question is a vernal Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgley), seen here still budding at the tender age of 24, three years out from recording his first and only album, Grace. Living alone in Los Angeles, ever under the shadow of his father’s legacy, the junior Buckley is invited to New York to participate in a tribute concert celebrating a man he never knew but whose presence he can’t escape. He agrees on what seems like a whim—or perhaps because he has something to prove.
Algrant regards this event—which did happen, at St. Ann’s Cathedral in the spring of 1991—as a venue for romanticized cross-generational reflection, not only the music world’s introduction to Tim Buckley’s heir apparent but, more significantly, a kind of spiritual reconciliation between a late estranged father—who died at age 28 of a drug and alcohol overdose—and the deeply wounded child he left behind. The film articulates this dimension of the story, regrettably, in little more than biopic platitudes and daddy-issue clichés. The elder Buckley is shown as careless but well-meaning in fleeting flashbacks to the late 1960s, his philandering more a case of immaturity than callousness, the long-term consequences of his absence projected on the brooding son’s disenfranchisement in ’91. From epiphanic motel breakdowns to eventual resignation, Jeff’s 90-minute journey from angry to accepting is strictly routine.
But it’s not all bad. Badgley delivers a nuanced performance of such ferocity he almost singlehandedly makes a conventional film seem loose and improvisatory. With his lackadaisical gait, a shock of unkempt hair, and his method naturalism, Badgley triumphs over a seemingly impossible challenge: embodying such a beloved and important musician, not only acting as him but singing in his trademark tenor. The film’s chief pleasures are its simplest: watching Badgley shoot the shit with an intern at a Brooklyn record store, making sarcastic jokes before bursting into an impromptu Iggy Pop impression.
More intriguing, and somewhat more sophisticated, is the manner in which the film connects points in history through popular song, making music a communicative tool. Greetings suggests that the music of Tim Buckley was bequeathed to his son like an inheritance, its magnetism lingering. For Jeff to cover his father’s songs on this occasion wasn’t merely ceremonial; it was the highest form of tribute, speaking to Tim by speaking through his music.
And by mounting its own replication of the tribute concert—with Badgley covering Jeff covering Tim—Greetings enters into a long, substantive tradition of covers for which both Buckleys were well-known: Tim’s Sefronia included renditions of songs by both Tom Waits and Fred Neil; Grace featured numbers borrowed from Nina Simone and Benjamin Britten; and Jeff, of course, also recorded what is widely considered the definitive version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” In its own way, Greetings carries the torch.