Nyla Bialek Adams and Laurie Trombley have made a devotional sixty minute film about sublime talent. The visual focus is Jeff Buckley's iconic face, but the spiritual and artistic content swirl around the holy talent that was as much an affliction as a gift.
It uses the familiar television doucmentary format: half archive and half contemporary comment from friends, associates and (of course) his mother. But it lingers more than TV directors dare, and it seems more conscious of the sold-out music venue where we sit in awe. The dynamics of the soundtrack sure wouldn’t work on my home TV. Being part of an audience of believers intensifies the experience. It’s as much a gig as a film showing.
This UK premiere was one of a series of music-related movies on the Leeds Film Festival fringe. W&H were able to get tickets (the showings sold out) at the very cool Hi Fi Club. Its informal musical ambience was a perfect setting.
I was spooked from the opening seconds, with Buckley singing Cohen's Hallelujah, alone and adored. Musical influences? There's the first of those long pauses that TV wouldn’t allow. The camera stares at Buckley's discomfort. Artfulness comes to his rescue: "Love, ego, depression…" [long pause] "…death."
Did he really say "death"? Or was that just my internal script? Maybe it was "devotion"? He smiles, his sombre face flashes with mischief "and Zeppelin!". Look back at the first acronym.
The whole film works like this. Someone (your reviewer?) wants the answers to dumb questions. "What was his childhood like?" "How did he learn to sing like that?" "What influence did his Dad have?" "Why wasn't he more famous?" "What was his friend Fito doing when the river dragged Buckley under?" We learn nothing.
Of course not. It’s a film about talent. So it’s tentative. It stalks around and asks no intrusive questions. It glances in at gigs, showcases, meetings, tour bus videos and promo videos. And a glorious Sin-é film of Buckley singing a jazz standard in a Sex Pistols t-shirt. The story line is of a creative passion that seems independent of its carrier. We hear the development of his music through the early years in New York, building gradually up to the emotional lightning bolt that is the full studio version of Black Beauty.
The crucial commentators are the other artists: a singer songwriter, a painter, a composer, a choreographer, his band. These are the inspired inheritors of his talent. If the music itself didn’t convince (and it does) these other voices give witness. At the end, fiercely glinting lights from the river and the clouds dazzle us back away from the details we want, to struggle with the universal truths that we can never master.