Review: ‘Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley’

Mysteriously drowned at age 30 in 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley left behind just one completed studio album. Electrifying performance footage in "Amazing Grace" underlines the sense that a great talent was lost. But this less-than-definitive docu portrait works overtime abetting his tragic-hero mythology, worshipping the artist but omitting insight into the man.

Mysteriously drowned at age 30 in 1997, singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley left behind just one completed studio album, the remarkable 1994 “Grace.” That was enough to ensure him a still-growing cult audience, as well as more posthumous tie-in sales than any late rock legend since Jimi Hendrix. Electrifying performance footage in “Amazing Grace” underlines the sense that a great talent was lost. But this less-than-definitive docu portrait works overtime abetting his tragic-hero mythology, worshipping the artist but omitting insight into the man. That lack could be fixed with expansion of the brief runtime, making specialized theatrical play more likely.

Leaping past Buckley’s early years, the pic suggests he sprang fully formed upon moving to NYC in 1990 — an impression shared by the loyal following he soon developed at Sin-e and other under-the-radar clubs. His passionate performing style, insinuating songs and extraordinary voice — swooping pitch-perfect from growl to falsetto to Middle Eastern-style ululation — soon attracted a major-label bidding war, then fast assembly of a backing band.

Acclaimed “Grace” release led to an 18-month international tour, after which Buckley ditched the spotlight for Memphis, where he struggled to come up with a satisfying sophomore disc. That effort was cut short by an impromptu river swim from which he never emerged, apparently caught by riptides.

Seen in interview and promo clips, the handsome performer comes off as even younger than his years, somewhat self-consciously striking vague tortured-artist postures he might soon have outgrown. (“I think too much … there’s too much to know, too much at stake … Life is bigger than anything.”) His reportedly playful side off-stage is just briefly glimpsed. These affectations are forgotten, however, in the live or live-in-studio sequences where he performs hair-raising versions of his songs and his signature cover, Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”

Fellow musicians, fans and friends offer plaudits but little insight. Even Buckley’s mother Mary Guibert speaks of him as if describing a remote, intangible genius, cryptically referring to his occasional “troubled” moments and “dark days.” As if the whiff of pretentious obfuscation weren’t already apparently enough, pic ends with a quote from Pushkin.

Archival materials are of variable quality, but remain the unquestionable highlight of this competently assembled package.

Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley

Production

A Once and Future Prods. presentation. Produced by Nyla Bialek Adams, Laurie Trombley. Executive producer, Peter Adams. Directed by Nyla Bialek Adams, Laurie Trombley.

Crew

Camera (color/B&W, digiBeta), Adams; editors, Adams, John Neely; music, Jeff Buckley; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Dan Olmstead. Reviewed at Cinequest, San Jose, March 9, 2005. Running time: 62 MIN.

With

Sebastian Bach, David Browne, Chris Cornell, Shane Doyle, David Fricke, Mickey Grondahl, Mary Guibert, Matt Johnson, Parker Kindred, Duncan Sheik, Michael Tighe, Hal Willner, Jimi Zhivago.
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