“Greetings From Tim Buckley,” a new film that premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival Tuesday, is a biopic of famed 90s rock singer Jeff Buckley — just not in the traditional sense. Rather than chronicling his most famous period (the release of his acclaimed debut “Grace” in 1994 and the fatal, fully-clothed swim in Memphis that led to his death at the age of 30 in 1997) the film instead takes place over a few days in April 1991.
It’s a time when Buckley (played by Penn Badgley) was an as-yet-unsigned musician in California, still finding his voice as a singer. After receiving a phone call from an eager producer, Jeff reluctantly travels to New York to perform at a tribute concert for his late father, the folk singer Tim Buckley, who was estranged from his son and also died young at the age of 28. The film then unfolds as a dual narrative of scenes of Jeff in 1991 preparing for the concert and flashbacks to the 70s of his father Tim (played by Ben Rosenfield) both onstage at venues like New York’s Café Wha and offstage reluctantly facing fatherhood.
Badgley, best known for his role as Dan Humphrey on “Gossip Girl,” boldly does his own singing and guitar playing as Buckley in “Greetings,” and his performance is a visceral standout in an otherwise quiet film. In one particularly memorable scene, Badgley as Jeff visits a record store with his love interest Allie (Imogen Poots) and bursts into song whenever she holds up a different album. That includes Led Zeppelin’s “III,” whose vocals and guitar arpeggios Badgley impeccably recreates with his voice, eventually falling to his knees and enthralling the whole store in the process.
Badgley performed all his singing scenes completely live — if only for the technical ease it lent the very independent production.
Jeff Buckley Performs at the Tim Buckley Tribute Concert (1991)
“It would’ve been hard to do without the live performance, even if I’d done singing afterward or recorded it before, which is more common, it would’ve stolen everything we had going for us with the vibe,” Badgley said in an onstage Q&A for American Express cardmembers after the premiere Tuesday night. “It was almost impossible to rehearse — we often had no time.”
The actor’s vocals were also praised by Anthrax’s Frank Bello, who portrays punk icon Richard Hell in the film. “I was a Jeff Buckley fan, and you had balls of steel to do the singing and get the acoustic and just go for it,” he told his costar.
The film was shot as Badgley was wrapping up “Gossip Girl,” which further cut into his rehearsal time – though he was able to brush up on his guitar-playing skills, having played off and on for the last 10 years.
The film was directed by Dan Algrant (“People I Know,” “Naked In New York”), an admitted novice to the realm of both Buckleys who quickly became educated on both musicians during the film process.
“[Producer] Fred Zollo started playing me Tim and Jeff Buckley songs and I began to get into them for the first time,” Algrant said during the audience Q&A. “But when I leapt emotionally into it was the first time I heard the original concert. I just freaked out at these lyrics and [co-screenwriter] Emma [Sheanshang] and I would just go, ‘Wow this Live in London album, who the heck would allow people to forget these songs?’ He was a little bit before my time but something we try to remember now. We were hoping this would bring people back to this music.”