“Greetings from Tim Buckley” is the semi-biographical story of late singer Jeff Buckley’s preparations for a 1991 tribute concert honoring his absentee father, late folk singer Tim Buckley.
The film plays the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this week, but it’s available everywhere in the comfort of your own home with XFINITY On Demand. When asked why an independent movie like “Tim Buckley” deserves audience attention, star Penn Badgley told me, “It’s a special story about a special little icon. It’s something that I think you may not even know how to react to at first, but there’s something really valuable.”
He continued, “Nobody –not even the people who wanted to make money – thought they would make money off this. And they probably won’t. Everyone involved just wanted to make something really meaningful.”
The 26-year-old actor, best known from the TV series “Gossip Girl,” is getting critical praise for his performance as Jeff, who struggles to balance a budding romance, a search for identity and his public singing debut in just a few days. The film also features flashbacks of Tim (played by Ben Rosenfield) as he abandons his family for a reckless life on the road.
Keep scrolling for my full conversation with Badgley, who talks candidly about the film, his artistic interpretation of Jeff Buckley and the public’s underestimation of his talent.
David Onda: Can you start by telling me a little bit about how you got involved in this film?
Penn Badgley: Well, when I first got the script, I didn’t know much about Jeff at all, let alone his father, Tim. I did know that there had been the rumblings of a Jeff Buckley project for a long time, and I’d always hoped that I could be in the running for it. And then I read the script and I was really surprised by the direction the story took.
Onda: It’s not what people would typically expect of a biopic, per se.
Badgley: It’s not at all what I think most anyone would expect from a Jeff Buckley film. I mean, it’s not even really a biopic in a conventional sense. So I was very intrigued when I read it – I was fascinated and actually kind of perplexed. At that point, I wasn’t even really understanding the delicate beauty of that storyline and choosing to tell that period of Jeff’s life. And I kind of put [the movie] out of my head because the audition didn’t come for a while, and then I remember the audition came to me after I had been travelling down in South America. And I get back and then I have the audition in two days and I was like, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Wait a second.” I wanted more time to prepare. In fact, I sent my agent at the time like an email like, “How can you do this? You know how important this role is to me.” They’re just like, “Sorry man, you just gotta [expletive] do it.” I went in and then it was like three or four scenes where I had to sing the last song of the concert, and then also the record store scene.
Onda: What sources did you use to sort of create your characterization of Jeff’s personality and who he was and his sort of personal life?
Badgley: Yeah, that was a hard one. Before I even got the role, there was a month and a half in between the auditioning and me getting it, because like Dan [Algrant], the director, didn’t see my tape until a month and a half later. So I had moved on, but I was still fascinated with Jeff and I was reading about him, learning his songs – I just was falling in love with this guy. And finding, in some ways, that I just understood who he was and I couldn’t explain why. I also watched as much video of him as I could for a short period of time because I didn’t wanna be impersonating him, I didn’t wanna be mimicking him. You know, I think anyone who sees a small clip of this movie, or sees a trailer – I think it looks like I’m not really doing anything. Do you know what I mean? It’s like, I’m not doing some spot-on Ray Charles impersonation. I’m playing a version of Jeff that has to incorporate some of myself because I sort of decided very early on that the best thing to do was invoke the same kind of quality that he had as opposed to mimicking his every moves and idiosyncratic mannerisms.
Onda: Your performance is very controlled and even restrained in some ways. You have a screen presence, but you don’t scream, “Look at me!”
Badgley: And that’s kinda Jeff, you know? He was the kind of person who, at any given point in time, could really melt into the corner of a room and people wouldn’t even know he was there. Before he became Jeff Buckley, he was a strange character who, I think, a lot of people couldn’t figure out. He was a depressed musician out in L.A. And I think people think of him as this poetic, romantic icon that he became – and that was part of him – but it was not all of him, at all. Biopics now are this thing where like – let’s see how close the actor can get to the real thing. That’s kind of ego-based. I’m not saying anything about any other performances, I’m just saying, particularly for this story because it’s such a strange story, I think approaching it [my] way was the only way I could do it. Evoking the same qualities, and doing the best that way, is kind of living the way he would. So I was just trying to like be an artist, you know? Here’s something that’s paying respects to two artists in a way that they would appreciate it.
Onda: Does it offend you that people are surprised that you are capable of being an “artist”? You’re getting such great buzz for this movie, but it’s almost like people can’t believe it.
Badgley: What I’ve found is that nobody really wants to talk about the movie – they all want to talk about how surprised they are that I can do it. And on one hand that’s vindicating and that’s great, but at the same time – I do want people to get past that because I feel like we made a really special little movie. I’m not offended, by the way. I understand that. If I were not me and I saw me on “Gossip Girl,” I would just take it at face value and assume I had nothing more to offer. I mean, why should anyone be inclined to think that anyone can be more than what they’ve seen, other than understanding that everyone’s human and much more than what’s on the surface, you know? And this movie is Jeff kind of coming to the same point. I’m pretty sure that Jeff’s family and friends – of what little he did have at that stage in his life – when this all started happening he was in such a whirlwind, they were just like, “Who the [expletive] is this kid? Where did he come from? Where did that voice come from? Where did that guitar playing come from?” This guy used to get along better with dogs and would be the quiet, silent guy in the corner at a party, and now he’s becoming this poetic icon. Everyone’s saying, “Here’s the next Bob Dylan and Nina Simone and Billie Holiday wrapped into one.” To a much, much, much lesser degree, I think I’ve felt the same energy where no one thought I could do it, but that doesn’t really matter because that’s not what it’s about.
Onda: And you did all the singing in this movie yourself, right?
Badgley: Yeah. And we actually did it all live, too. There was no prerecords. It was all very spontaneous, and it had to be live because we had no other way to do it.
Onda: How much do we actually know about the days leading up to the Tim Buckley tribute show and what Jeff actually did? What’s truth and what’s fiction?
Badgley: It’s pretty much all fiction, but in the fiction you are tapping into a reality you might not even get if you were sticking to the facts. The girl he was falling in love with at that time, I don’t think is anything like Allie. She has certain qualities. He did meet Gary [Lucas], he did start writing with Gary and those songs would become two songs of Jeff’s album “Grace.” And he did meet Janine Nichols and Hal Wilner, who were in the movie. The same guy who did the sound – the same kind of old punk guy who’s running the sound board at that church – that’s really the guy who did it. The guy who played the cello in the movie, his name is Hank Roberts, and he actually played cello at the show with Jeff. And I’m pretty sure Doug, the drummer, played with him too. The whole thing was populated with people who were really there. So, the truth is, the action may not be accurate, but the vibe is very accurate and real.
Onda: The movie paints a complicated picture of Tim. Were you conflicted about making a movie about a beloved musician who, in the film, comes off as kind of a terrible father?
Badgley: Well, he wasn’t kind of terrible father. He was a terrible father. That doesn’t mean he’s a terrible human being, and that’s exactly what Jeff was struggling with. That’s what I was struggling with. Just because a 19-year-old kid decides to, for lack of a better word, abandon his child and his wife because he has no idea what to do, it doesn’t mean that he’s a terrible human being, it means he has no idea what to do. And he made the wrong decision. Or maybe he made the right decision. Maybe he never would have written any of those albums. Maybe he’d be alive now, but he would have lived a completely depressed and suppressed life. But who knows. All we know is what actually happened. You can’t even say he was a terrible father. He wasn’t a father. But, within that, you have this really sensitive, artistic soul who’s trying to do what he’s always dreamed of. Tim had a really tortured upbringing. Much worse than Jeff’s. Jeff grew up wanting a father and hating the ones he didn’t know. But Tim – Tim was a product of some really dark [expletive]. And I think Jeff started to understand that. And you start to see Jeff grapple with the very things I’m saying right now. “At the end of the day, can I judge him? What would I do?” And those are things that we all, if we’re just being honest with ourselves, start to ask ourselves as we reach our 20s, 30s. We have to stop judging our parents because they were young and frustrated at one time just the way we were.
Onda: Who will enjoy this movie? Do you have to be a fan of Tim or Jeff to appreciate the film?
Badgley: I think, if you’re a fan of the Buckleys, and really have a special relationship with their music, you’ll probably love it more. But at the same time, I think people who don’t know much about it might appreciate it for a strange father-son story. I do think it stands alone on its own. I think it’s a pretty universal story and told in a strange, also accessible way, where you don’t need to know anything. You just need to have some humanity.
“Greetings from Tim Buckley” is available now with XFINITY On Demand. Click here to begin the process of ordering.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.