Being Your Mountain: Trailing Tim and Jeff Buckley

A few weeks back, the trailer surfaced for Greetings From Tim Buckley, the first of reportedly two Jeff Buckley biopics in the works. The one that is currently in production attempts to take on the singer-songwriter’s brief career in its entirety, all the better to showcase its acquired rights to his original material. It boasts a cast of name actors. It also promises to make a star out of Reeve Carney, the British singer-actor who bears more than a passing resemblance to the alt-rocker. For some people, this is kind of a big deal. As a long-time Buckley fan who has followed trade discourse on a number of potential and aborted biopic projects since the late 90s when early cheerleader Brad Pitt trumpeted his interest, I’ve been concerned about who would tell the story and what such a film would focus on. I’ve been particularly interested in casting rumors and maintain that 2006-era James Franco would have been the way to go.

The other film, which made its debut at the Toronto International Film Festival to some acclaim, appears to be a different animal. Penn Badgley—best known as Gossip Girl’s Dan Humphrey and also received attention for his work in Easy A and Margin Call—plays Jeff. However, rather than attempt to take on the young singer’s career, the film centers on his promising debut at a tribute concert for his late father, folk singer Tim Buckley, the man from whom he inherited an otherworldly voice but otherwise never knew.

Bracketing off the remainder of Jeff’s career is a smart move. For one, this story is arguably the most compelling portion of David Browne’s Dream Brother, a biography that dialogues father and son’s personal lives, professional trajectories, and untimely deaths. Focusing on a time before the son wrote his own material is perhaps a clever way to hide that the production didn’t receive permission from Jeff’s mother, Mary Guibert, who oversees his estate.

Situating Greetings within the music biopic’s governing conventions, the decision to build a film around one minor but important legend is also a way to potentially distance itself from the genre’s limitations. Stated broadly, music biopics are boring. They essentially tell the same story. A musician—usually male—cannot handle the pressures of fame. He indulges, he betrays trusts, he self-medicates, and he overcomes his vices—either through posthumous legacy or with a second wife. This makes it ripe for parody, whether we’re talking about Walk Hard or Behind the Music.

These are a set of conventions that are hard to rework or overcome. Arguably–and I say this as a fan–not even post-modern, self-aware music biopics like 24-Hour Party People completely pull it off. For all of Tony Wilson’s winking at the film’s construction of his record label’s mythology, all the conventions are in place. Ian Curtis commits suicide. Shawn Ryder succumbs to decadence and hurts the label in the process. Martin Hannett substitutes one addiction with another and dies. Factory Records loses its money through a series of poor business decisions and has to shutter the label and its night club, where Wilson gets to dance with his ghosts one last time. Given the film’s proclivity for postmodern asides, it misses an opportunity to not better integrate female artists who had minor or tangential relationships with the label and its scene. Linder Sterling made fliers for the Buzzcocks and fronted Ludus. ESG performed at the Haçienda’s opening night and recorded with Hannett. Happy Mondays’ backup singer Rowetta Satchell reportedly survived an abusive relationship with Ryder.

One possible reason why this film genre retraces the same narrative conventions is that the life of a touring musician is potentially a boring subject for a feature film. A concert can be a magical experience, a site of interpersonal conflict, or just another show. Otherwise, a tour is often a series of interchangeable cities, hotels, interviews, stage setups, vehicle breakdowns, and fast food restaurants anchored by a bus and limited wardrobe that adopts a stench which blooms and stagnates the longer you’re away from home. It’s tough to make this glamorous or narratively compelling for a feature film, which may explain why musicians’ lives and performances have arguably been better served by documentaries and concert films. David Byrne unveiling the oversized suit in Stop Making Sense is exciting. The countless moments where he and the rest of the Talking Heads engage in passive-aggressive sparring or ignore each other is not.

So where does this leave Greetings? Based on the trailer, Badgley does a capable job mimicking Jeff’s voice, mannerisms, and odd charisma. However, I worry that the film (or the studio) doesn’t trust its audience enough to recognize Badgley’s effort. The scenes selected for the trailer bluntly underline how much he looks and sounds like his father and that his performance at St. Ann’s Church was transcendent. Importantly, they use other people’s reactions to illustrate Buckley’s otherworldly star presence and artistry rather than trusting that filmgoers might be caught up enough in Badgley’s performance to make that leap for themselves. It’s especially intrusive at the end of the trailer when Jeff covers “Once I Was.” The camera lingers on reaction shots—particularly his lover’s tear-streaked face—instead of his performance.

I would imagine the primary motivation behind relying on other characters to tell the audience just how engaging Tim and Jeff Buckley were as performers is so the film to get around the potential liability of its subjects’ relative obscurity. Many people, if they know Jeff at all, are only familiar with his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” which scored several 9/11 montages and Seth Cohen’s summer retreat and was performed by a few American Idol contestants. Critical estimation of Grace, his only album, grew after his death. It certainly influenced a number of vocalists—Thom Yorke, PJ Harvey, Maxwell, Duncan Sheik, Chris Cornell, Chris Martin, John Mayer, Rufus Wainwright—most of whom were more commercially successful. Tim’s work was well regarded by critics and peer musicians, particularly his early output, which sought to broaden the scope of folk music by folding in the textures and improvisatory impulses of free jazz. But he never had a proper hit record.

This makes the film’s title potentially confusing for people who are not familiar with either musician. Greetings takes its name from the tribute concert that helped establish Jeff’s presence in New York’s underground music scene and piqued the curiosity of major label A&R representatives. The title assumes that you know who these men are and their (non-)relationship to each other while the trailer hedges its bets by having virtually every character remind Jeff of his connection to Tim and his own artistic potential. The title is also potentially insulting to Jeff, who in some sense is once again overshadowed by his father’s legacy.

But I’m actually more concerned with what Greetings does to Rebecca Moore, Jeff’s former girlfriend. Moore did not give this or any other production permission to use her name and likeness in the film. I respect her decision. For one, she was with this man a long time ago and was the subject of many of his songs (most notably “Lover You Should Have Come Over”). More importantly, she’s always had her own thing going on. She is the daughter of Peter and Barbara Moore, an artist and historian associated with the Fluxus art movement. She is a fixture in New York’s avant-garde theater and music scene who received attention for protesting Lower East Side redevelopment initiatives. She is also a multi-instrumental independent recording artist. When she met Buckley, she was already an established presence in this scene. In the trailer, despite Imogen Poots’ best efforts, she’s reduced to a starry-eyed intern named Allie with a crush on her boyfriend’s father.

Another noteworthy figure in Jeff’s romantic life was Joan Wasser, who was in a relationship with the singer at the time of his death. Like Moore, Wasser is an accomplished veteran of New York’s independent music scene. It’s my understanding that she also did not grant permission for the use of her name and likeness in any related film project. One of my favorite parts of Dream Brother is Wasser’s recollections of the first night she spent with Jeff while their bands embarked on a tour together. Though Jeff had a reputation for being a player, many of his friends and romantic partners were creative women who had little to no interest in being part of the same industry with which he made his bed. I recognize that these productions must avoid reproducing too close a likeness to these women for legal reasons. But by parroting conventional representations of women in music biopics as blindly supportive and caught up in their lovers’ mystique, Greetings‘ filmmakers potentially do a disservice to their subject, a young man who had a bit more going on than his father’s voice and cheekbones, and the people who were part of his life.

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