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Badgley as Duckie – Pretty in Pink

One of the true standout segments in Daniel Algrant’s Greetings from Tim Buckley takes place in a record store, after the arrival of Jeff Buckley (Penn Badgley) in New York for the celebratory revival tribute dedicated to his folk legend father Tim Buckley. Jeff harbors not-so secret misgivings about participating because he never had a relationship with his father and he’s obviously intent on forging ahead on his own musical career, one that would have nothing whatsoever to do with rehashing the gossamer love songs of a man he believes had little love in him for his own family. Jeff watches the adoring collection of acolytes fawning over arrangements of his father’s songs and swims in a stew of annoyance and outright scorn.

So, he bolts, taking the cute young intern (Imogen Poots), who so loves his father as well, and tiptoes his way through the city. The record store where they settle, becomes hallowed ground for Jeff in much the same way the old church has for the tribute team, but here, in this far more catholic place, Jeff can pay homage to a host of other patron saints, those he believes are far more worthy of praise.

And so he does. A record lifted from the stacks, gets dropped on the player, the needle touches down, and Jeff is on, laying down an acapella highlight track; his voice soaring to the heavens, much to the chagrin of workers and customers alike. The music and the exercise moves him, taking over his body and soul. He’s like a puppet with clipped strings, yet imbued with a shockingly electric burst of life.

images-53Caught in the holy vibe of the spirit in him, it might remind those in the audience of another such musical channeling. John Hughes, all the way back in Pretty In Pink, gave us a fiery, touch of the holy as Duckie (Jon Cryer, who will eternally be Duckie in my mind) danced and lip synched his way through a rough and tender version (could this be anything other than “rough and tender”) of Otis Redding. It was plain as the nose on your face that Duckie was in love with Andie (Molly Ringwald), but if she couldn’t see and feel it in this rapturous expression, then she simply wasn’t worthy.

Jeff’s interlude wasn’t so much about wooing a love. For him and the movie as a whole, the record store is but an early stage in a spiritual service, a revival that has less to do with his father or the ghost in the music. This is the son awakening to his own destiny.

images-54 Jeff’s Grace

Greetings offers a curious glimpse into what is to come from Jeff. During the impromptu jam with Gary Lucas (Frank Wood), the two riff and rumble through fragments of what will become the title track of Jeff’s lone full-length release Grace. For those, like myself, who have devoured all of the posthumous releases complete with live recordings from around the world and the numerous alternative takes of each song on Grace, this scene has the exact feel of the improvisational interplay that likely spawned the song. Gary sensed in Jeff’s wandering spirit, the fevered immersion into Middle Eastern vocalization, the studied awareness of chord progression that would beget a complex stew of rock that, in its heights, might marry the classic mythos of Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin with the “teen spirit” of contemporary grunge.

“I think you should join my band,” Gary tells him after the inspired session, and Jeff, despite all of his worry and confusion over his tortured relationship with his father, forgets all of that for a moment, jokingly answers, “I think I just did,” and with that, more than anything else that follows in the film, finds his true north. It is a marvelous hint, a teasing bit in a movie that tries to match, moment for moment, parallels between father and son, but, in this case, it is plain that there is no such moment in Tim’s featured experiences that compares. Tim’s music plays over those hazy flashbacks, but mostly it is Tim’s voice, his finished tracks that define him. He is complete, already an established musical presence.

Fathers and Sons

Emerging from the shadow of a great man, that is the enduring myth dogging sons in relation to their fathers. It probably doesn’t matter that fatherhood, in today’s society, has lost much of that ancient magic. Families, the paternal structure, lie broken in the the ruins, except for the conceptual framework, which reaches us most clearly in our art forms, like, say, film.

Robert Redford’s Quiz Show unearthed one of the more recent cultural periods where the family with a strong moral patriarch still roamed the landscape. His film was at once familiar and an almost religious relic, as it told the story of the quiz show scandal of the 1950s. A shocked nation confronted the idea that the new media would lie for profit. But barely buried beneath the surface was the narrative thread of a father and son fraught with questions of identity, individuality, and the inevitable disappointments that come with any fall from personal grace.

Towards the end, in the midst of a series of confrontations, the most profound exchange takes place between Charles Van Doren (Ralph Fiennes), the soon-to-be disgraced academic for his role in the cheating scandal, and his father Mark Van Doren (Paul Scofield). The elder Van Doren was a noted poet (having earned the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1940 for Collected Poems 1922-1938), scholar and professor of English at Columbia University.

Redford captured the intellectual and philosophical sparring that took place at the Van Doren compound in New England where they gathered for weekend dinners. The extended Van Doren clan, with nary a television in sight, entertained and challenged each other by engaging in quip duels featuring quotes from classic poets, playwrights, and novelists. There was something inspiring, and quite frankly, downright intimidating in the heady dialogue between father and son early on. This was a dangerous intellectual battlefield where these gladiators competed and where Charles strove, in vain, to usurp the throne.

But, with a Congressional hearing looming, in which Charles would have to admit his guilt before the world, the son stood before his father, in an empty lecture hall to explain himself for the first time. The moment was fraught with seemingly unbearable shame, but even here, the two slipped back into a razor-sharp interplay that Charles knew, once again, he could not win.

“It was a goddamned quiz show, Charlie.”

“An ill-favored thing, sir.”

“This is not the time to play games.”

Charles wanted the game, one last chance to win. To claim something for himself, and that was his admission. That he wanted something of his own, to establish a name for himself.

“But,” his father reminds him without scorn, “your name is mine.”

Fiennes, as Charlie, gave his father a look, one that begged, pleaded for sympathy, support, forgiveness before the words, which would surely follow.

That’s quite a long and rambling set-up for a comparison between the Van Dorens and the dynamic between Jeff and Tim Buckley. Jeff longs to hear from his father. He yearns for an expression of love, sorrow, or shame, an apology, a word of advice. Anything. All he has, all he will ever have is his father’s music; the one thing that feels more like a challenge, a wall of sound that he must tear down in order to make a name for himself.

It is what is expected of every man.

Author Paul Auster, in his memoir, The Invention of Solitude, examined his feelings upon hearing the news of his father’s death. He was at home, a father himself, and he knew he would have to travel and attend to the details of his father’s affairs, but rather than grief or sadness, in those initial moments, there were no tears, there was no free fall as if the world had stopped spinning on its axis.

“What disturbed me,” he recalls, “was something else, something unrelated to death or my response to it: the realization that my father had left no traces.”

There was a near complete absence, despite the fact that at one time, the man had been a part of his son’s life. Auster’s parents had divorced, but the writer remembers the family unit – his father, mother, sister and himself – together.

In my own case, there never was this togetherness. My absent father was always a separate idea, a figment, a void. He wasn’t invisible because that would imply that he was present, even for a moment, which, he never was. I finally sought him out, just a few years ago, after more than 40 years and gained, in a brief half hour conversation, something decidedly inconclusive.

I always imagined the meeting I would have with my own father to be similar to that of Jacques Cormery, the protagonist of Albert Camus’s unfinished novel The First Man, who takes a train to visit the grave sight of his father Henri Cormery who was “fatally wounded at the Battle of the Marne, died at Saint-Brieuc October 11, 1914,”

Jacques had never known his father and as the narrator tells it, the visit made no sense. He wasn’t sentimental or even conventional when it came to emotions, but standing there before the marker, which had two dates, “1885-1914,” he did the math and realized that at his current age of 40, he was 11 years older than his father at the time of his death.

Jeff, in Greetings, faces his own version of this realization before the tribute. He executes a bit of the tricky calculus and arrives at the fact that his father, when at Jeff’s age, had already released several albums, while by 1991, Jeff had nothing to show for himself. He was just a romantic wanderer, but what was he in love with. Tim had music, and it seems that Jeff, on that tribute stage, makes peace with his father and comes to embrace music too.

Greetings From Tim Buckley vs All Is By My Side – TIFF one year to the next

Having returned from the 2013 installment of the Toronto International Film Festival, it is hard to watch Greetings without thinking back to last year’s festival where I caught the film for the first time. As a fan of Jeff Buckley, I beelined my way into a seat for the screening with all of the unrealistic expectations one undoubtedly would have for such an event. I wanted the film to, if only for a moment, resurrect Jeff.

Much like the film documents his search for a glimpse of his father, I hungered for a piece of him, the performer I discovered after his death, thanks to a stunning remake of “Everybody Here Wants You” by British rock & soulster Lewis Taylor. I was one of the adoring faithful clinging to him like the musicians paying tribute to Tim Buckley.

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And what I got was a film that, despite failing to meet my impossible expectations, bestowed on me a precious piece of Jeff, a willowy complement to store alongside the YouTube clips of his videos and grainy live performances. Badgley did something more than merely channel the ghost of Jeff Buckley in movement and manner; he prepared himself to live in those moments, to breathe and play and sing like Jeff did.

Overall, the film fails him by not digging deeper into the grief and the search to come to peace with the memory of Tim. The scenes right before Jeff takes the stage at the tribute, where he cries, letting it all go, don’t do justice to the struggle, but that is not Badgley’s fault.

TIFF 2013 has a suitable complement for Greetings From Tim Buckley in writer-director John Ridley’s biopic on Jimi Hendrix (All Is By My Side). Ridley’s production labored under the burden of not having access to the Hendrix musical catalogue, but he cleverly sidestepped the issue by focusing on the year before Hendrix recorded Are You Experienced?. At that point, Hendrix was just a session hand and onstage back-up player in New York, until he was discovered by Linda Keith (Imogen Poots, ha!), the model-girlfriend of Keith Richards and plucked like a delicate flower from the US, replanted in England.

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Ridley makes better use of a lyric visual style that mimics the performance style of Andre Benjamin (of Outkast fame) as Hendrix. There is a lovely ethereal quality to Benjamin, even in more dramatic and startlingly violence sequences, that gives the impression of an almost Zen-like investment in Hendrix-in-the moment. All Is By Mind Side works better as a whole, but there is a real kinship between this film and Greetings, in these two lead performances.

It is all about finding and abiding by grace.