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Why Tragic Jeff Buckley Biopic Has Lured the Likes of Pitt, Maguire, Pattinson, and now Badgley

Photo of Jacob Combs By Jacob Combs | Thompson on Hollywood June 28, 2011 at 6:58AM

For a producer, it’s not exactly a good sign when you have to publicly acknowledge that an actor isn’t playing the lead role in your biopic because he is in fact playing that same role in another biopic being made simultaneously. It’s probably even less heartening to find out just a week later that your seeming duopoly on the subject material has splintered even further, and that there is suddenly a third contender in the ring.
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Thompson on Hollywood

For a producer, it’s not exactly a good sign when you have to publicly acknowledge that an actor isn’t playing the lead role in your biopic because he is in fact playing that same role in another biopic being made simultaneously. It’s probably even less heartening to find out just a week later that your seeming duopoly on the subject material has splintered even further, and that there is suddenly a third contender in the ring.

This happened to Orian Williams, the producer of Jake Scott’s upcoming Jeff Buckley biopic, when he was asked a question earlier this month about a casting decision that ended up being not about his film but rather a different biopic about Buckley, Daniel Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley.

To make matters more complex, this Thursday, Australian director Brendan Fletcher announced that he will be directing A Pure Drop, yet another movie about (you guessed it!) Jeff Buckley based on the 2008 book A Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley by Jeff Apter, a former Australian music editor for Rolling Stone. Fletcher, whose debut feature Mad Bastards premiered in the U.S. this year at Sundance, will produce along with Train Houston (who wrote the screenplay) and his wife Holly.

Houston’s project has been in the works for quite some time: Chris Morris wrote in THR in 2005 that the writer-producer was shopping around a script based not on Apter’s book, but on Dream Brother: The Lives & Music of Jeff and Tim Buckley, another biography about Buckley and his musician father written in 2001 by David Browne, music critic for EW. Around 2005, Houston worked on the project with an executive at Tobey Maguire’s production company, but talks fell through.

Like A Pure Drop, Greetings from Tim Buckley will examine the relationship between the two Buckleys, focusing specifically on Jeff’s 1991 tribute concert for his late father, an event that catapulted him into preeminence. The elder Buckley was a pioneering musician in his own right, experimenting with genres from folk to jazz, soul and psychedelia before dying of a drug overdose at 28. His son Jeff earned even more fame as master singer-songwriter-guitarist, but three years after great acclaim for his 1994 album Grace, he accidentally drowned in Memphis. He was 30.

The film, directed by Dan Algrant (whose career has progressed at a Malick-ian pace of one feature every ten years) starts shooting in August. Buckley will be played by Penn Badgley of Easy A and Gossip Girl. Badgley is certainly prettier than Buckley (who was pretty good-looking himself), and will have to work to shrug off the TV hunk stereotype as he steps into a more serious role. The more pressing question of whether or not he can sing has been raised by fans (many of them clamoring for none other than non-singer James Franco), although for now there seems to be no ready answer.

Working against all this, of course, is the other already-announced pic to be directed by Jake Scott (Ridley Scott’s son), an as-yet-untitled film that aims to be a more conventional biopic than Greetings does. Buckley’s mother is onboard as an executive producer, and she reportedly met with Robert Pattinson to discuss the casting of the lead role. (In the race to portray the real life of an iconic and somewhat tortured musician, heartthrobs somehow rise to the top. Go figure.)

One intriguing piece of trivia is that Mary Guibert (Buckley’s mother) at one time gave the green light to Brad Pitt to produce Scott’s film with Jennifer Aniston and their production company Plan B. Not surprisingly, the plans fell through when the couple split up.

Who will get to the finish line first? Greetings has the leading man advantage, but Buckley projects seem notoriously hard to get off the ground no matter who’s involved. This isn’t the first time we’ve seen dueling biopics: Bennett Miller’s Capote completely overshadowed Douglas McGrath’s Infamous by not only being superior but getting out a year ahead. It’s possible we’re looking at a similar situation here, but then again, for anything with the name Buckley, the rules don’t really seem to apply.

This article is related to: Genres, Headliners, IN THE WORKS, Musical, Independents, Biopics, Rob Pattinson, Brad Pitt


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.