A snapshot of two prodigiously gifted, tragically short-lived artists, “Greetings From Tim Buckley” dramatizes formative career moments in the lives of the titular 1960s folk icon as well as ’90s rock star Jeff Buckley, who never really knew his long-gone father. Dan Algrant’s well-crafted third feature focuses primarily on the younger musician, who’s strikingly if somewhat off-puttingly portrayed as a petulant man-boy acting out his Oedipal issues in bratty self-absorption. Likely to get respectful rather than enthused reviews, the pic will have an uphill climb in reaching beyond the subjects’ diehard fans.
The junior Buckley (“Gossip Girl’s” Penn Badgely) barely remembered his famous pa, who divorced his wife before the boy was born, and died from an overdose nine years later, in 1975. He’s a big chip on the protag’s shoulder at the outset, as the 25-year-old Californian very reluctantly accepts an invitation to participate in a 1991 tribute concert produced by Hal Willner (Norbert Leo Butz).
Arriving in New York, he’s irked when everyone tells him he’s a ringer for the event’s late honoree. Jeff resists playing dad’s music, claiming he neither listens to or likes it. (During a showy sequence in a record store, he in fact demonstrates imitative contempt for just about every past rock era.) Rather than attend rehearsals, he plays hooky with pretty production intern Allie (Imogen Poots), dragging her off to explore Brooklyn and taking the train to upstate Amsterdam, where his father once lived.
These meanderings are intercut with fleeting glimpses of Tim (Ben Rosenfeld) a quarter-century earlier as he drives cross-country with a girlfriend, picking up one-night stands both musical and sexual. He’s on the verge of stardom, just as Jeff is seen making a first professional splash at the climactic tribute concert. Three years later, Jeff would release the breakout LP “Grace,” his first and only completed studio album before an apparently accidental 1997 drowning death.
Both men were arrestingly distinctive singers. Badgely does a thrilling job capturing the mix of siren sweetness and caterwaul in Jeff’s vocals; Tim’s sound is less successfully evoked by Jann Klose, who dubbed vocals for actor Rosenfield. We hear primarily Tim’s songs (including soundtracked original recordings); Buckley Jr.’s music apparently wasn’t cleared for inclusion here beyond a cover track or two — though we do hear the guitar riffs that became “Grace’s” title track.
Algrant (“Naked in New York,” “People I Know”) and collaborators have a fine grasp of the simultaneously easygoing and argumentative near-chaos of preparations for an event like the pic’s tribute sequence. But those canny atmospherics can’t fully cover the pic’s scant narrative muscle, dominated by Jeff and fictive Allie’s routine quasi-romance. If, in flashbacks, Tim is a smiling hippie cipher, the grown Jeff is a sulky, snotty self-parody of a “sensitive artist,” with the body language of a 5-year-old, and so theatrically bored he can barely hold his head up. Still, he’s a fine illustration of how good, even great art can be made by exasperating personalities that only a groupie (or biographer) could love. The result is at once skillfully observed and a bit so-what.
Packaging is first-rate, from the expected sonic aspects to design contributions and, especially, Andrij Parekh’s astute lensing.