His accidental death by drowning, aged 30, robbed music of its brightest new star. But the cult of Jeff Buckley, whose body was discovered on the banks of the Mississippi in 1997, will go mainstream this year with three biopics competing to tell the story of the ethereal singer who released just one tantalising album – Grace.
Brad Pitt and Sir Ridley Scott’s son Jake are among those battling to bring Buckley, whose cascading melodies and emotional falsetto voice influenced artists including Radiohead and Coldplay, to the screen.
Jake Scott hoped that his film, Mystery White Boy, would be the “official” version. The music video director has the exclusive rights to Buckley’s music and personal archives, including permission from Sony Music to use “Hallelujah”, the singer’s show-stopping version of Leonard Cohen’s song, which he included in Grace.
Mary Guibert, Buckley’s mother, is executive producer and will be played in the film by Patricia Arquette. However, reports suggest that Scott has been bumped from the film in favour of a new director, Amy Berg. Reeve Carney, star of the U2-composed Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, was due to take the lead role, but he too may be replaced.
The first film to gain a widespread release will now be Greetings from Tim Buckley, which examines Jeff’s relationship with a father he barely knew. Tim Buckley was a pioneering folk-rock singer during the Sixties, who mixed jazz and psychedelia, before dying of a drug overdose, aged 28.
Directed by Daniel Algrant, the film stars Penn Badgley, from the hit US teen drama series Gossip Girl, as Jeff. Badgley took singing and guitar lessons for the film, which portrays Buckley’s preparation for his public singing debut, a 1991 tribute show to his father, which alerted the music world to a new talent. A video of Badgley singing “Lilac Wine”, a 1950s standard covered by Buckley, was posted online to demonstrate the actor’s grasp of his character’s distinctive four-octave vocal range.
The British singer Kate Nash also appears in the film, which features original Tim Buckley music, approved by his father’s estate and which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to a positive response.
The tribute concert was also set to be the centrepiece of a third film, A Pure Drop, from Australian director Brendan Fletcher, based on a 2008 biography, A Pure Drop: The Life of Jeff Buckley by Jeff Apter, a former music editor for Australian Rolling Stone.
Brad Pitt looks set to be the loser in the Buckley biopic race. The star, who claimed to be obsessed with Buckley’s music, lobbied Guibert to give him exclusive rights over several years. She is said to have rejected the scripts he proposed because they strayed too far from reality.
Jeff’s mother has proved an obdurate guardian of his legacy, rejecting another script because it imagined an LSD-hallucination of a meeting between Tim Buckley and her son. A proposal backed by Tobey Maguire’s production company also displeased Guibert, who insisted that her son never had drug or alcohol issues.