I Dreamed I Saw Jeff Buckley Last Night
By Al Giordano
NEW YORK CITY, MAY 4, 2013: My expectations were rock bottom when I walked into the Village East Cinema (original headquarters of the Yiddish Art Theater back in 1926) last night, in the shadow of Stuyvesant Town, grasping my ticket and holding my nose to watch “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” which has received sparse attention and ho-hum yawns from those few critics who bothered. I expected to hate it because I have detested almost every motion picture I’ve ever seen about people who I knew in real life. My loathing was on speed dial, entering the old cut-stone theater building at Second Avenue and Eleventh Street, as was my usual unease about ghosts: My friend Jeff Buckley, whose relationship with a father he barely met was purportedly the “theme” of the film, lived around the corner from that very same theater during his end times in New York, before leaving for Memphis in early 1997, where he would die at the age of 30.
I wanted to go to the film on its first night in theaters. Then I didn’t want to go. I decided to see it. Then I decided not to. I went back and forth indecisively until my colleague, a film school refugee who sometimes goes by the moniker of Miss Grumpy Cat Herder, said she would accompany me. Since one of her mutant powers is the rare abiity to keep me from causing scandalous scenes of the sort that Jeff and I sometimes threw in public spaces, I figured that even if the movie made me want to scream “fire” in a crowded theater, Miss Cat Herder would get my straightjacket fastened in time to whisk me away from police detention and a corresponding night on Riker’s Island.
The East Village on a Friday night is not the ideal set and setting for calming one’s nerves before exposing one’s self to the late-chums’-life-as-commodity circus: Loud bridge and tunnel boys who crowded every bar with a TV blaring during a Knicks-Celtics game made it necessary to circle a few blocks before remembering that the Café Orlin on St. Mark’s Place has no television set and still maintains a modicum of old New York not-nice civility. A gulped pale ale and a maple Manhattan cocktail later, we were ready to brave the theater. (“Don’t yell ‘fire,’ don’t yell ‘fire,’” was the mantra I kept whispering to myself as we crossed the threshold and handed in our tickets.)
The first relief came upon entering salon three of the Cineplex: there were fewer than two-dozen people attending the 9:50 p.m. screening of this movie on the night of its in-theaters premier. Even if I had shouted “fire,” nobody would have been trampled. However terrible this flick may turn out to be, I thought, at least it is not so successfully hyped that it will corrupt an entire generation’s memory of a late comrade in arms. The second relief was that there was nobody I knew in the theater: no eyewitnesses to tell the world I had been there, or that I’d left, disgusted, in the middle of it, which figured would be the most likely trajectory of the evening. But a funny thing happened on the way to the EXIT sign.
“Greetings from Tim Buckley” segues between scenes of singer-songwriter Tim Buckley circa 1965 being the kind of hapless hippie asshole that most members of his faux-peace-and-love generation embodied and then, a quarter century later, his adult son Jeff’s arrival to New York City where he’d been invited to perform at a tribute concert to the father he never knew. At the age of 18, Tim had knocked up his 17-year-old girlfriend, married her, and then skipped out on the road leaving yet another single mom behind with a little darling to play “you and me against the world” together, which is pretty much the entire story of the so-called “sixties,” beginning, middle and end, despite the era’s charming soundtrack and media-fed iconography. If director Daniel Algrant’s intent was to make the senior Buckley an unsympathetic figure, he succeeded very early in the narrative. It could have been easily titled “Bullshit from Tim Buckley.”
For actor Penn Badgley – known to the world so far only as Gossip Girl’s young-writer-from-across-the-tracks Dan Humphrey – taking on the role of Jeff, with a voice of five octaves and who left only limited archival footage behind for any actor to study of how the songwriter really lived, seemed a mission fraught with peril from the get-go. No actor (or vocalist) alive can sing as well as Jeff sang: that was a given going into the project. But through the composite and fictional muse in the form of an intern for the 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert at St. Ann’s Church in Brooklyn, named “Allie” and performed so spritely by the charismatic Imogen Poots, Badgley succeeded in capturing the essence of Jeff, the human, on screen.
My main complaint about movies and TV these days is that so few screenwriters and actors succeed in making me actually care about a character. Badgley, in the only two roles I’ve ever watched him play, is so far batting 1.000. And this time he got to take on the role of an authentic, not fictional, “lonely boy” of New York.
“Do you think Jeff would have liked his portrayal?” Miss Cat Herder asked me after the screening.
“Yes, he would have,” I replied. “But he wouldn’t have admitted that to anyone, and would have changed the subject had anyone asked.”
Jeff Buckley was one of the first and best mutants who wandered into what would eventually become this modern-day X-Men academy that fights the revolution against the media. In truth, he was a co-founder of the academy. But that is a story for another day. Jeff was one of the least linear people I’ve ever met. Planning was not his strong suit. Jeff would float through his days and nights aimlessly, clinging to the notes and chords and words in his head and finding refuge in his guitar, until he would stumble regularly upon a shiny bauble in the form of a beautiful and disturbed waif-of-a-muse or a genius idea that would capture his attention, and his mutant talent would then surface to traverse a straight line between the present and the future as he would saddle up to the shiny object or person, look it in the eye, and orbit around it while also changing the other person’s or thing’s spatial course. The daily life adventures that this power created then became the materia prima for his songwriting. Rehearsals weren’t really Jeff’s thing. Stages and microphones were the shiniest of those baubles and they pulled him onto them gravitationally. And from that fulcrum position, he became, at moments, a sun god that shot off solar flares and storms and gathered up armies around him. Unfortunately, those troops mostly consisted of flatfooted users, middlemen, groupies and glommers, too many of them from his father’s generation, who sucked his blood dry and, with it, I still believe, his will to live.
After Jeff’s death, when I was telling people that he had been “suicide by SONY,” the callous company to which he had been indentured, Penny Arcade put me on the phone with the great defender of musical talents, Danny Fields, and we agreed to disagree on that point. To Danny, early demise was like a lottery ticket that simply descended on random personas. To me, however, Jeff's death was, and remains, personal, and an injustice yet to be righted.
There are two scenes upon which “Greetings from Tim Buckley” pivots. One takes place in a record store where the money graph pops out of Jeff’s craw. He expresses his total contempt for “sixties music” and Penn Badgley, now his representative on earth, pulls off an acapella vocal-and-dance performance that rivals Jon Cryer’s music store serenade of “Try a Little Tenderness” to muse Molly Ringwald in “Pretty in Pink.” It is in fact more impressive than that 1980s classic scene because Badgley sings the audio part and pulls it off.
The second scene – and the point in which I turned to my companion and confessed, “oh, I LIKE this movie” – takes place on a train from Grand Central Station to Jeff’s ancestral burg of Amsterdam, New York, north of Albany (I believe in real life those trains leave from Penn Station, but we’ll allow a little artistic license since Grand Central is more cinematically compelling). There, the prodigal son of the absentee father delivers the best, most stinging, indictment of “sixties” nostalgia I’ve seen on the silver screen. He wonders aloud if his late father had one day found the diary of “a hippie on an acid trip,” stole it, and turned the prose into songs until he got to the last page, ran out of material, and then it was “time for him to die.” How long have I waited for that sentiment to be expressed aloud in the media datasphere? The contempt which Jeff’s character expresses for his father (and with him, the man’s entire generation) thus meets the very definition of a “negative pleasure,” for which there is a word in the dictionary: Sublime.
That basically is the entire narrative of “Greetings from Tim Buckley,” a movie without a plot, or with so minimal a plot that the dialogue serves to make a single crystal clear point while essentially serving as a pretext for the music of the film, which itself is very compelling. The musical scenes –so many minutes based on the 1991 tribute concert, and its haphazard rehearsals, from which Jeff Buckley emerged as a victim and product of what Joni Mitchell once labeled the star-maker machinery of the popular song – are where the movie comes together and begins to make sense out of the chaos of his, a non-linear life. In that sense, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” is true to how Jeff really lived his 30-year sentence on earth, one that only made sense to him when the music was actually happening.
A third super performance deserves recognition in this film, beyond those of Badgley as Buckley and Poots as his (and our) composite muse, and that is Frank Wood’s portrayal of guitarist Gary Lucas and the musical conversation between Jeff and he. I don’t know if it is historically accurate or not – the movie ends five years before I met Jeff, and I always made a point of never asking him the kinds of questions that everybody else always peppered him with about his backstory – but a scene in Lucas’ apartment, cluttered with stringed instruments, and a brief guitar jam between the two composers, captures a universal moment of what happens when two musicians recognize each other and begin to collaborate together. And that scene finally makes all the musical components of the film unite into a seamless overture for the music that would come out of Buckley in his final years.
Not knowing much about the presumably ugly sausage making of movie production, I asked my film school graduate companion whether it was possible for a motion picture to succeed without a plot. “Yes,” Miss Cat Herder replied. “It is a portrait, and therefore it doesn’t need a plot.”
As a portrait, “Greetings from Tim Buckley” succeeds in sharing a little piece of our fallen friend with those who might be curious as to the man behind the media myth. In the final scenes, at the tribute concert, young Jeff steals the show and that led to a New York Times write up that launched his too-brief musical career. The elder friends, colleagues and fans of his late father glom onto him and applaud, they hug him on stage as if to squeeze out one last drop from his late father, but when it is time to get in a taxi and “go dancing” they leave 24-year-old Jeff behind, by himself, to walk the Williamsburg Bridge back into lower Manhattan, late at night, alone again, searching for the next shiny bauble, as was his habit in life.
We exited the theater much in the same spirit, walked past Jeff’s last address in New York, and the muse struck me. I was suddenly able to put into spoken words some memories so beautiful and painful that I’ve not yet, even sixteen years later, been able to write them down; of Jeff’s final night in New York and of what might have happened next had he not drowned in a tributary to the Mississippi in May 1997. His was a death with consequences. I’m still not ready to write it down. But the movie inched me perhaps a few steps closer toward doing so. And isn’t that the stigmata of any work of art’s success?
Art only succeeds when it inspires action from other humans to dig a little bit deeper, to walk alone over the proverbial bridge, and take the journey of life and creation away from the linear and planned path and toward the next shiny bauble. No, I did not hate this movie at all. I am even grateful for it. Perhaps nobody else will see it as I do, as a big, overdue, “fuck you” to the 1960s people and the horse they rode in on, and therefore anthem for those of us who came later and had to clean up after them. I’m not assigning motive here: It’s quite possible that its creators did not intend it to be that. But Jeff would have wanted a film about his life to say so, and Penn Badgley, who did not lip sync, channeled that point memorably onto the screen. And for 99 minutes, it allowed me to pretend that a special conversation cut short sixteen years ago this month was somehow still ongoing. That’s what an authentic movie should do: expand the terrain of the imagination, and smuggle the seeds of “secret history” into the future, to be planted, cultivated, and harvested, because tomorrow is another day.