Jeff Buckley’s “Amazing” Life Is Subject of Film Documentary
By David Chiu
The overall response to watching Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley, a posthumously released 2004 film documentary about the life of musician Jeff Buckley, is two-fold. One response is sadness because the film reminds us of what might have been if Buckley hadn’t died in 1997 at age 30 from an accidental drowning. And yet the film is also uplifting because of the timeless quality of Buckley’s music and mesmerizing performances.
The film chronicles Buckley’s early days performing at the Lower East Side café Sin-e, his signing with Columbia and garnering acclaim for the album Grace and culminates with his final stop in Memphis where he was recording Grace‘s follow-up. As the film points out, at a time when alternative rock, with its detachment and self-loathing, was all the rage—Buckley brought back the importance of the personal singer/songwriter. And while dealing with the pressures of fame and a music industry that was usually unkind to serious musicians driven by art, Buckley was never compromising. What comes across very clearly in this poignant documentary is Buckley’s drive and passion, qualities he possessed from the very beginning of his career that never diminished.
Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley has made the film festival rounds and will be released on DVD on June 2 as part of the special deluxe version of Grace Around The World, a DVD/CD collection of Buckley’s live performances recorded around the time of Grace. The documentary was directed and produced by Nyla Bialek Adams and Laurie Trombley. Microphone Memory Emotion caught up with the filmmakers who spoke about what drew them to producing a documentary about Buckley, the filming and research process and the impact of Buckley’s music.
Q. Congratulations on the documentary now being commercially released. What is your reaction? The movie was originally scheduled to be released on DVD a few years ago.
LAURIE: Thank you! When we first set out to make the film, our goal was to screen the documentary at film festivals, so a worldwide DVD is pretty phenomenal. And, yes, Columbia was set to release the film in 2007, but some unforeseen licensing issues bubbled up and the release was delayed. Thankfully, the film is coming out now, and we’re very excited to finally share it with Buckley fans!
Q. At the time, where did the idea of making the documentary come from? What was your aim or purpose, or what did you wanted to convey to people about Jeff’s music and life in this film?
LAURIE: The idea for the documentary was a perfect culmination of circumstances. First, I already had a connection to Jeff because he’d personally chosen me to manage his fan relations when I was in college. Then, a few years later, I met Nyla at the documentary television network where we both worked. We began discussing the idea of making a short film together, and it was around this time that Jeff passed away.
NYLA: It was also around this time that Laurie re-introduced me to Jeff’s music. I was so moved after listening to Grace, that I actually wrote a poem (and I don’t write poetry.) The next day, when I asked
Laurie if Jeff’s music had this inspirational effect on other people, she told me about all of the poems, songs, paintings, drawings, etc. that she’d fielded while managing Jeff’s fan relations. It was like bingo! We decided to make a short film investigating this magical quality in Jeff’s music that touches people so deeply.
LAURIE: From there the idea evolved to focus on the power of Jeff’s musical legacy, its impact. The focus from the very beginning was all about the music, not Jeff’s life.
Q. What was Mary [Guibert's] initial reaction when you sought her approval? How involved was she in the project? And what were her feelings about the film after she saw it for the first time?
LAURIE: Mary’s initial reaction (she later told us) was to turn us down. However, after meeting with us, and learning that we were not looking to make a biography, she was intrigued by our idea to focus on Jeff’s musical legacy. Throughout the production, Mary was not involved other than to assist us with some production snags. I think she only saw the film once, maybe twice before it was released. She loves the film and has been instrumental in its worldwide release.
Q. Throughout the research, was there anything about Jeff that surprised you and didn’t know before?
LAURIE: Our research began with a “call for entries” on Columbia’s official Jeff Buckley website. We wanted to feature fans who had been “inspired by Jeff” talking about him in their own words. And though we knew Jeff had a huge following internationally, we were shocked how many people from the U.S. responded! Especially, considering many people in the mainstream stateside didn’t know of Jeff or his music yet. There’s another whole documentary waiting to happen here–we could produce a mini-series! The response was incredible. One of the most difficult parts of production was going through all the responses and deciding who we could or should interview. Over the past 10 years, it’s been really inspiring for us to watch his legacy grow and to be a part of it.
Q. Were there any hurdles in the filmmaking, whether it was accessing footage and/or rounding up people to interview?
NYLA: There were plenty of hurdles. For one, the project was produced entirely out-of-pocket. We knew that if we tried to get studio backing, they’d want us to make a biography. So, in the interest of staying true to our original vision, I had to take production slow and save our pennies. Keep in mind, this was also our first film, so the learning curve was steep. When it was time to shoot, we had to take a class to learn how to use a camera. When it was time to edit, yet another class. But we never gave up and we kept going. As far as
accessing footage and obtaining interviews, you know that saying: “at the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you”? I’d say that pretty much describes our entire production. This film was
made possible by a series of freaky serendipitous events!
Q. Do each of you guys have a favorite moment from the documentary and why?
NYLA: Over the years, and after seeing the film so many times, our favorite moments have shifted around. This film was made a long time ago. Production commenced almost immediately after Jeff died. Ten
years later, what pleases us most about this film is that it’s become this little time capsule of Jeff’s legacy.
LAURIE: As we mentioned before, this documentary focuses not only Jeff, but artists who were inspired by Jeff. There’s Maria Castro, a classical composer. Sebastian Bach, the resident metal head. Gary Bernard, a painter from Philly. Ingeborg Liptay, a French modern dancer in her 60’s. And, Duncan Sheik, a singer-songwriter. Our favorite aspect of this film is how it encapsulates a broad range of fans who were inspired by Jeff, which we feel is a true testament to his legacy.
Q. Why do you think Jeff’s music still continues to be influential or strike a chord with people today?
NYLA: This question is the crux of the documentary! The short answer is that sometimes people look to musicians to express or put voice to their own emotions. When you listen to Jeff sing, you can hear his
passion and his vulnerability and his struggles. He puts all of himself out there, unfettered. I think this is what strikes a chord with people. When an artist can encapsulate raw, sincere emotion inside beautiful music, they create something transcendent that stands the test of time.