Written by Daniel Algrant, David Brendel and Emma Sheanshang, and directed by Algrant, this new film concerning the early days of the late musician Jeff Buckley looks promising, especially with Jeff’s onetime collaborator Lucas handling the music. Penn Badgley portrays Jeff, and the highly appealing Imogen Poots co-stars. I’ve no idea if the Jeff Buckley estate (maintained by his surprisingly respectful mother) has given the thumbs up on this, but I have to say as a longtime fan I do like what I see. It was reportedly well received at the Toronto Film Festival premiere.
I’ve written about Jeff Buckley before, but I just came across this BBC documentary and felt obligated to view and review. Produced and directed by Serena Cross, the film presents a solid enough view of Jeff, from observations of the cultural impact his father held to the aftermath of Jeff’s own harrowingly tragic demise.
Though there’s a few awkward moments early on, equal quarters are given to the early shadow under Tim Buckley, Jeff’s time in New York City, his touring around the world (Whiteboy Mystery Tour being a personal favorite naming), and to his final weeks in Tennessee, where he hermitted away trying to perfect what was already leaps and bounds beyond anyone’s comprehension of perfection. Many faces appear on screen in interview, from his mother to his longtime photographer and confidante Merri Cyr to former bandmates Matt Johnson and Parker Kindred, to fans such as Jimmy Page and even Brad Pitt. While the first half does seem to overly focus on his father and their relation (or lacking thereof), once it gets to the Sin-e days and on it really finds its own voice as a docudrama biopic. Hearing other accomplished musicians, many of whom were quite well established while Jeff was still but a motel clerk in his early 20s in Southern California, hearing these persons honestly gush over the impact his music left them with is extremely stirring. I mean, BBC has turned out plenty of great documentaries, but I can’t remember a single one that wettened the tear ducts as did this film.
The film does capture his humour, and touches briefly upon his relationship with a certain woman who thankfully has never come public since his passing, and to her connections which inadvertently pulled Jeff into the realms of experimental theater, clearly impacting his stage persona and aesthetic. Additionally, the detailed glimpse into his final time south of the Mason Dixon line was truly interesting, even for a reasonably knowing fan such as me, with his last landlord explaining her own memories of the young musical genius.
Jeff wrestled with the consumerism of Art, and though his quest for truth and higher callings went unfinished, his body of work, shortened though it is, continues to inspire millions, for every reason in the world. Jeff Buckley, as this documentary explicitly shows, was and remains a genuine talent, a one of a kind artiste, and a haunting presence, even so many long years after the fact. I never met him, but listen to any one of his songs and you too can feel the passing of a long-lost friend.
Jeff Buckley has been my all-time favorite musician since May 29th, 1997. I can pinpoint the exact time and place when I first heard a tune of his, in Worcester, Massachusetts having just moved into the Annapurna building to begin my summer subletting. My old pal Chris Otten had helped me move in and stayed the week prior, needing my assistance in scripting and voicing an animated video he was putting together. I “borrowed” the Grace album when he left, being absolutely spellbounded by the track Last Goodbye in particular. Approximately two weeks later, when Otten returned for a briefer visit, I returned the disc, as he informed me of Jeff’s drowning, and of his body being found several days after the fact. That moment of synchronicity is an example of the charmed life I lead, and though I am disgusted by the acts of hero worship in others, I have to admit that there were long years in the time since where I simply would not be alive if not for Jeff’s music. Long nights of heavy solo drinking especially, with the worlds painted in his music singing me back down to reality, guiding me to tomorrow and the tomorrow after. I have come to own everything- the import singles, the many official/unofficial bootlegs- everything, as his score has been the soundtrack for my life.
The son of psychedelic folk musician Tim Buckley (whose I Never Asked To Be Your Mountain was actually composed for the infant son), Jeff never knew his father, growing up with his mom and stepdad and half brother reportedly as trailer trash in southern California. He attached himself to music early on, and in his post-school years explored as a session player around the Los Angeles scene. In the early 90s he had relocated to NYC playing solo sets at assorted clubs and coffee shoppes (even being a founding member of Gods and Monsters- the experimental rock ensemble from former Captain Beefheart guitarist Gary Lucas), slowly building an audience while vehemently studying the audio world to a near religious fervent. Eventually he gave in to signing with a label, and formed a band and released his Grace debut- which David Bowie later said would be the one album he would want with him on a deserted island. Years of global touring ensued with huge welcomes in Japan and Australia and around Europa.
On May 29th of 1997, Jeff was in Tennessee, finally making progress on what would have been his second full studio album while I was being introduced to his music hundreds of miles away. On June 4th, locals spotted his body floating in the Mississippi river. The autopsy reports later clarified that no traces of alcohol or drugs were found in his system, with a police report, a medical examiner’s report, and an eye witness to prove that it was an accidental drowning, and that Mr. Buckley was in a good frame of mind prior to the accident- thereby ruling out any possibility of suicide or foul play. His music lives on of course, with his ever-faithful mother running his estate with surprising care. Many of Jeff’s songs have been used in film and television, but many more opportunities have been righteously shot down for being inappropriate cash grabs- which was never what the man was about. It’s all about the music. And though he never shied away from performing covers himself, from musicians as divers as Nina Simone and the Pakistani spiritual vocalist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, his own songs are boldly original and emotional, with a wry humor and a soulfully introspective aesthetic and a brashly young defiance and ageless wisdom all packed into one prom dress. He has a song for almost everything, and the world was deeply robbed by the fated chance of a casual late evening dip in the river gone horribly wrong. For those seeking something more stabbing than mere mindless entertainment in their listening catalog, Jeff is anyone’s dream brother.
For additional information, please check out his official website.