“You know, I don’t really know my father,” mumbles Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgley) with half-cantankerous, half-curious inflection to a woman on the phone in the opening scene of Daniel Algrant’s conciliatory Greetings from Tim Buckley. It’s 1991, and the woman is calling from St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, where she’s helping to organize a tribute show for Jeff’s deceased pops, folk musician Tim Buckley. Despite his initial ambivalence, Jeff accepts the invitation and travels from California to New York City to understand his much-absent father’s legacy and explore his own musical inclinations. Algrant focuses primarily on the days leading up to the musical celebration for Tim, carefully avoiding the conventional Wiki-biopic format, and yet this microcosmic approach still fails to capture the essence of its real-life icons.
The film posits itself as a bifurcated portrait of a troubadour father and sensitive son (complete with Tim-centric flashbacks to 1966), yet this mollifying dual profile of dueling spirits amounts to two halves that don’t exactly equal a whole. Instead of using the juxtaposing scenes from 1991 and 1966 to illuminate the similarities and differences between Jeff and Tim, the spiritual connections between father and son are tenuous at best—mostly relying on, and limited to, superficial match cuts and congratulatory memory recall. For example, Jeff rides in the back of a cab, gazing at the steering wheel, which then cuts to Tim driving away from his house to pick up his mistress and travel to a gig. In another moment, Jeff and gal pal Allie (Imogen Poots), a St. Ann’s intern, blithely run through Greenwich Village, and the camera tilts up to capture the marquee of Cafe Wha?, where Tim was seen performing in an earlier scene.
These scenarios sit side by side in celluloid, and yet fail to communicate with each other—ironically creating an even larger distance between father and son that Algrant is trying to reconcile with the film’s themes of familial forgiveness and redemption. Unfortunately, Algrant devotes more energy to the cutesy flirtations between Jeff and Allie, who doubles as Jeff’s love interest and sounding board for his expressions of paternal rejection. Allie, a fictional conceit created by the film’s three screenwriters, comes dangerously close to being inducted into the Hall of Manic Pixie Dream Girls. She’s presented as a fun-loving companion, sipping nips of bourbon and urging Jeff to tell her stories, but, despite the large amount of time we spend with her, we only see her as Jeff does before suddenly realizing at the end that he’s in love: a cool, cute chick with playwright aspirations.
As pre-Grace Jeff Buckley, Badgley wisely evades histrionics in his portrayal of the sullen singer-songwriter, and yet comes across as more petulant than emotionally troubled. Unable to evoke a history of angst, Badgley spends a fair amount of the film simply looking mopey while staring out plane, train, and car windows. It’s not an easy role, but it’s a benign performance. Thankfully, musical moments are peppered in, including a semi-recreation of the tribute concert, which give Badgley the chance to contort his mouth and face while showing off his own musical talents (he reportedly took lessons for the film). “How does anyone know anybody? We’re all a million things!” laments Jeff in regard to those who claim they truly knew Tim, but Algrand validates this idea by delivering a reductive, single-minded narrative mostly preoccupied with young romance, as the filmmaker allows the tepid love story to cannibalize the contrasting multi-generational portrait. Despite the counter-culture subjects at its core, Greetings from Tim Buckley possesses a put-upon hipness that cannot mask its disarming dorkiness.