By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 14, 2012 at 4:09PM
While the film might not be quite as sweet and heady as drinking a glass of lilac wine, Penn Badgley's performance in "Greetings From Tim Buckley" does justice to the late Jeff Buckley, while also revealing that the "Gossip Girl" star has quite a few more talents than he's thus far been given credit for. But his swoop of wild hair and impressive vocal theatrics aside, the rest of the movie around him tells a trio of stories that never quite unite to land the emotional connection they're aiming for.
"You look just like him," Jeff Buckley hears from more than one person as he walks into St. Ann's Church in Brooklyn for rehearsals for the tribute concert being put together for his father Tim. An absentee Dad, who died of an overdose at 28, Jeff never had much of a relationship with Tim, but the shadow looms large. By the time of his death, Tim had released nine albums and was already being minted as one of the greatest songwriters of his generation. And while Jeff has musical aspirations of his own, he's yet to reconcile his feels about Tim, but the performance at St. Ann's forces him to face those demons and if not forgive his father, then at least come to terms with what he means to him.
And while that sounds good on paper, the script from director Dan Alagrant, David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang is never quite sure whether it wants to rationalize the decisions made by Tim Buckley or judge him, and settles into a not quite convincing compromise. Part of this problem is that the film moves between three narratives: one with Badgley's Jeff Buckley preparing and mostly pondering his upcoming performance; flashback sequences detailing the life of Tim Buckley before and after his son was born, and a pretty superfluous and undercooked romance between Jeff and Allie (Imogen Poots), one of the staff for the tribute concert.
Ben Rosenfield takes the part of Tim Buckley, and is as strong as Badgley. He settles comfortably into the role of an always-moving musician who is tasting rising fame, is an object of desire for women, and someone who is deadly serious about his craft and music in general. But his motivations for leaving his very pregnant wife at home alone are too vaguely sketched out -- is it because he's out there earning money to put food on the table? Is he not ready to be responsible for a child? One can likely infer it's a combination of the two, but the movie itself never earns the right to be so vague, nor is it willing to commit to a viewpoint about Tim's actions. And while the final scene attempts to give a concrete answer, it feels like such a concession to the audience that it doesn't feel believable for a moment.
Meanwhile, Badgley's Jeff spends most of his time brooding, with his feelings staying hidden, even to Allie who tags along with him on his jaunts around New York City and even up to upstate New York. His arc never strays much further than pouty faces gazing in the distance, but the handful of scenes that do let Badgley be romantic or funny tend to liven the character and picture all at once. As for Poots, she really makes the most of a part that must have been barely there on the page. She is basically in the movie to be a sounding board for Jeff and ensure he gets to the concert, but watching her perform, even in such a thin role, is always a joy. Poots may have one of the most expressive faces of any actress her age, and here it's that strength that enables her to bring so much to Allie who has to roll with Jeff's quick changing shifts in emotion. And seeing it all play out from the neck up -- from concern to a two-thousand watt smile in the span of a single scene -- is a pleasure few actresses provide.
But this is Badgley's show, with 'Greetings' eventually culminating with the concert, and Alagrant takes his time here. Badgley gets two numbers with the group assembled to play his father's tunes in addition to a grand finale all his own, which is appropriately a highlight. And where most pictures would end there, 'Greetings' unfortunately keeps going. And it's not just a problem with the closing portion of the film, but throughout, which suggests to us that either the movie was rushed for TIFF or could use another pass in the editing room. More than one sequence rolls along for too long, whether it's an early scene of Jeff going off on a Led Zeppelin III inspired a capella performance in a record store -- another moment for Badgley to present his pipes -- or a later crying fit that seems to come out of nowhere. There is a tendency to let certain scenes play far longer than they need to in the film, and even portions of Tim's flashback story -- especially those trying to detail his political beliefs -- are simply extraneous. But then again, to remove it would potentially destabilize the rather thin foundation 'Greetings' stands on already.
There is no doubt that "Greetings From Tim Buckley" is respectful, and thanks to Badgley and Rosenfield, does justice to both singers. But the film never quite connects father and son as each sharing the common bond of extraordinary talent or even similar personal woes. Oddly enough, we get a better feel for Tim rather than Jeff who remains mostly an enigma through the film. An extra half hour exploring his life before he flew from Los Angeles to New York City to play St. Ann's would've helped shed some light, but as this wasn't sanctioned by the estate, perhaps those elements were off limits. But given the parameters it has to work in, "Greetings From Tim Buckley" tends to work better than it should. [C+]