‘Greetings from Tim Buckley’: Penn Badgley on Playing Late Musician Jeff Buckley

Richard Porton talks to Penn Badgley about playing musician Jeff Buckley in ‘Greetings From Tim Buckley.’

Matt Carr/Getty

At times, acting well is the best revenge. Although scores of Jeff Buckley fans expressed skepticism—or outright hostility—after it was announced that Penn Badgley would play the leading role in writer/director Dan Algrant’s Greetings From Tim Buckley, early reviews have been uniformly rapturous about the former Gossip Girl star’s performance. When the film premiered at the Toronto Film Festival last fall, The Globe and Mail proclaimed “Penn Badgley’s performance here … is so strong and involving that if he wasn’t already a star courtesy [of] his gig on TV’s Gossip Girl you’d be tempted to go Garland and break out the ‘a star is born’ huzzah.” In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman hailed Badgley as “a great camera subject, and a great singer, too—he does an eerily dead-on impersonation of Buckley’s jazzy wail.”

When I sat down with Badgley toward the end of a daylong press junket, he was far too polite to chide the naysayers who dreaded the mere prospect of the film’s release. It was nevertheless evident that he was quietly enjoying a well-earned triumph.

“Yes, I’m proud of this film,” he told me. “And I feel confident that anyone who gives a damn about Jeff Buckley will appreciate what we were trying to do. Beyond that, I gave everything I could, Dan, the director, and Imogen [Poots] (who plays Badgley’s love interest in the film) gave everything they could. People can nitpick ... but we were going for something a bit more shapeless and ethereal than the usual biopic. People might even say my nose isn’t the right shape to play this role. But anyone with a regard for Jeff’s music, even if they don’t like the movie, will at least appreciate the effort.”

Unlike lumbering Hollywood biopics such as Walk the Line and Ray, Algrant’s film is distinguished by its modesty and a refusal to compress a complex life into a series of melodramatic incidents. Instead, this anti-biopic derives emotional resonance from a few simple narrative strands that highlight a now-iconic figure’s oedipal conflicts, a youthful romance, and the sadness of a life doomed to be snuffed out much too early.

The immediate departure point is a tribute concert, held at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Church in 1991, to Jeff’s father, entitled “Greetings From Tim Buckley.” Tim, the “folk rock” pioneer that the incipient star barely knew and whose memory triggers enormous ambivalence in the still obscure 24-year-old, was a cult singer in his own right. (Glimpsed in flashbacks, Tim is played in the film by Ben Rosenfield as a shaggy-haired, quasi-Dylanesque charmer.) Jeff’s attempt to come to terms with his errant father’s legacy at the St. Ann’s tribute provides a gloss on how a young performer deals with the anxieties of various influences—both musical and parental. In certain respects, the younger Buckley’s fleeting romance with Allie (the excellent Imogen Poots playing a fictionalized paramour) functions as a brief antidote to his overweening melancholy and occasional surliness.

While Badgley was perhaps slightly disingenuous when he insisted that he “wasn’t even considering the career implications” of this film, he comes off as absolutely earnest when he describes the role as a “gift … everything about the script was exceptional.” He agrees that the movie’s greatest virtues reside in its limited scope and correctly observes, “the problem with most biopics is that they’re trying to do too much. You can’t tell anyone’s entire story in two hours, let alone someone who’s a friggin’ icon. We took a delicate, responsible, sensible approach here and just told six days.” He seems perfectly content with the fact that “it’s a quiet little movie that’s not going to get any awards,” and concludes “I think it will be the sort of movie still worth watching years later.”

From another vantage point, Greetings From Tim Buckley can also be viewed as a current matinee idol’s tribute to a heartthrob from a previous generation. Badgley admits that he feels a genuine kinship with Jeff. Without hesitation, he confided that “I did have an affinity for him; I sort of understood some of his experiences, although I can’t really explain it. There were certain circumstances growing up that we shared—little things that only I can understand.” Even the movie’s portrait of a fraught father-son relationship has a resonance for Badgley, who maintains “all men have a kind of potent, loaded relationship with their fathers. Since I was unpacking a lot of that at that time, I think I was in a good head space to take on the father-son element.” In addition, Badgley is equally adamant in expressing his musical debt to Buckley: “I spent six months when I was 17 absorbing his Live at Sin-é album; that moved me as a teenager who loved music.”

According to guitarist Gary Lucas, Jeff Buckley’s most important collaborator and co-author of the seminal Buckley tune “Grace,” Badgley’s almost primal identification with the late singer paid off brilliantly. In Touched by Grace, his forthcoming memoir, Lucas exults that Badgley’s “embodiment of Jeff—the way he so gracefully inhabits Jeff’s persona in the film—was so close to the Jeff Buckley I recall as to literally give me chills when I finally saw his performance on screen in an early cut of the film.”

When I asked Badgley if his success in capturing Buckley’s essence was the result of either research or acting chops, he responded: “I didn’t have any definitive research or technique. There are probably a lot of people who could do a spot-on Jeff Buckley impersonation and could get the hair going. Although I could have tried for impersonation or mimicry, that’s not what this script is about. I was so honored to play this role and respected him so much as a musician that I felt that I was beyond any method or technique. It also helped that I was also moving at the time and falling in love. But perhaps what Gary is speaking to refers to the fact that, if you’re evoking a real emotion, that’s going to feel more real, even if it’s farther from the literal truth. I felt such a responsibility, as one human being to another, who’s real but dead and has no say. I was even living in the same New York neighborhood where Jeff lived. His stomping grounds became my stomping grounds for a time.”

Badgley maintains that “music has always been my first passion” and Greetings From Tim Buckley allows him to display his vocal virtuosity. A scene featuring an improvised, a capella riff on Led Zeppelin III, performed by Badgley in a record shop resembling Greenwich Village’s late, lamented Bleecker Bob’s, is a pivotal moment in the narrative that succinctly conveys both Buckley’s enormous talent and his impetuous nature. Claiming that “he didn’t even rehearse” this bravura vocal exercise, Badgley describes his process as “intuitive and a lot of fun. The script said that ‘Jeff does a 60-second sonic impression of the entire Led Zeppelin album. He collapses on the floor.’ So within that frame it had to be done. But this was an element of Jeff that I understood; his mimicry and his retention for music and melody. I’m glad that I didn’t have to rack my brain to understand this.”

In contrast to Buckley, who drowned at the age of 30 in 1997, it’s clear that Badgley doesn’t want to burn himself out like an expiring Roman candle. Still, at least in public, he tends not to dwell on his career options. Even though the implication is that he’d like to kiss television—no matter how lucrative—goodbye, he’s merely grateful that the Buckley film “gave me a chance to explore myself an artist. I was the kind of person who, up until this point, couldn’t even call myself an artist. I’m just enjoying this for the time being.”