Daniel Algrant’s drama Greetings From Tim Buckley is named for the innovative folk-rock singer-songwriter, who became a cult figure in the late ’60s and early ’70s for his explorations into moody abstraction, before dying in 1975 at the age of 28. But Algrant’s film—which he co-wrote with Emma Sheanshang and David Brendel—is really about Tim Buckley’s son, Jeff, an equally adventurous rocker whose fame ultimately eclipsed his father’s, though he too died young. In 1991, a year before Jeff Buckley began the residence at the East Village’s Sin-é coffeehouse that properly launched his career, he reluctantly agreed to perform at a Tim Buckley tribute concert, staged at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn by legendary music producer Hal Willner. Jeff Buckley had never really known his dad—his only firsthand memory of Tim was a brief meeting when Jeff was 8—and had no intentions of using his family name to get his start in the music business. He agreed to play the show mainly to achieve some kind of closure on a relationship that had eluded him. Greetings From Tim Buckley intercuts Jeff’s visit to New York with Tim’s own journey to the city 25 years earlier—the moment when he left Jeff’s pregnant mother behind—to contrast the lives of two budding stars, trying to sort out their artistic aspirations and their family obligations.
Ben Rosenfield plays Tim, and grounds the image of the restless troubadour in the body of a soft, well-meaning kid, too swept up in the moment to understand whom he might be hurting. Penn Badgley, playing Jeff, has the harder job—not just because he has to imitate the singing voice of one of the most remarkable rock vocalists of all time, but because he has to wring some charm out of a character who mostly comes across as a cocky, aloof, irreverent asshole. As depicted by Badgley and directed by Algrant, Jeff Buckley is dismissive of his father’s legacy and disrespectful to the musicians who want to honor it. Badgley’s Jeff answers friendly questions with non-committal grunts, and spends most of his time in New York flirting with a young woman (Imogen Poots) by showing off in public places, seemingly indifferent to everyone but her.
Being stuck in a go-nowhere, wholly fictional romantic subplot doesn’t help Badgley, given that Jeff Buckley’s crush has little to do with his father, beyond the superficial connection of two young men in thrall to their hormones. Still, Badgley is terrific, and even if he doesn’t quite succeed in making Jeff Buckley likeable, he does make the singer’s standoffish attitude understandable. When Jeff first arrives in New York, Badgley plays him as a shy outsider, not sure where he fits into a circle of people who love Tim Buckley far more than he does. But Badgley also depicts Jeff Buckley as a man with confidence in his own gifts, which he at first teases via muted humming of old R&B songs and the Casper The Friendly Ghost theme, before later blowing everyone away when he sings his dad’s “Once I Was.” When Jeff is walking past the Cafe Wha?, and stalking the same alley where Bob Dylan posed for the cover of Freewheelin’, he looks like he belongs in that rarified company. In Badgley and Algrant’s hands, Greetings From Tim Buckley isn’t an origin story; it’s a sketch of one man’s inevitable ascendance.