The World’s End & Greetings From Tim BuckleyAugust 3, 2013
There could hardly be a better setting for a movie called The World’s End, than a provincial English town. Regardless of the picturesque, ‘ye olde’ touches, many of those who spent their childhood in these soulless hamlets have fled like refugees from a scene of social disaster. It may not be entirely coincidental that director, Edgar Wright, hails from Poole in Dorset, while fellow script writer, Simon Pegg, was born in Gloucestershire. They know the turf.
One of the ignoble pleasures of art is that it enables you to take revenge on the place you grew up and the people at school you never liked. For a comic filmmaker there is also the chance to satirise all those popular sub-genres that pollute our cinemas and our minds. The World’s End demonstrates a mastery in both these areas.
In 2004, Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg collaborated on Shaun of the Dead, a successful spoof on zombie movies. They have returned to similar territory in The World’s End, but with a more sophisticated story-line. In the previous film, Pegg played a man trying to win back his estranged girlfriend while negotiating a plague of flesh-eating zombies. In The World’s End he is Gary King, once the coolest guy at school, but now a middle-aged alcoholic, intent of taking his former cronies on an epic pub crawl while everything collapses around them.
Gary King is a brilliant piece of comic observation. Everybody knows someone like Gary, still living on memories of those glorious school days while his actual life is a shambles. Gary still drives the same car he drove as a teenager and wears the same kind of clothes. With a head full of psycho-babble from rehab, he has convinced himself that in order to achieve “closure” and put the past behind him, he must complete the Golden Mile – a twelve pub circuit of his home town, Newton Haven, that he and his friends vainly attempted in their last year at school.
To do this he has to reassemble the gang: Steve, now a building contractor; Peter, a luxury car salesman; Oliver a high-end real estate agent; and Andy, a corporate lawyer.
Each of them greets Gary’s suggestion with scorn and incredulity, but somehow they end up back at Newton Haven, prepared for the worst.
In the first part of the film it appears the worst possible scenario is to spend an evening in the company of an increasingly garrulous and drunken Gary. That seems nightmarish enough, until Gary goes into the pub toilet and gets into an altercation with one of the locals who turns out to be humanoid robot.
Not even half-way through the pub crawl the movie changes genres. From situation comedy it becomes science fiction, when the friends discover that the citizens of their home town have been systematically replaced with ‘simulants’. The story becomes ever more frenetic, as a desperate struggle for survival is combined with Gary’s monomaniac need to complete the pub crawl.
There are so many references and in-jokes in this film that it’s almost impossible to say who or what is being satirized. The idea of a town taken over by aliens sends us back to Don Siegel’s The Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) – the ultimate allegory for the contemporary art world. The robot villagers conjure up thoughts of The Stepford Wives (1975), while George A Romero’s zombie films are also in the mix. Like those zombies, the robots are slow and cumbersome. They may be beaten off and broken, but just keep on coming.
The World’s End is also a buddy film which gets much of its comedy from awful memories of school days, recollected over a few pints. It benefits from an excellent script and sparkling performances by Nick Frost as Andy, Martin Freeman as Oliver, Paddy Considine as Steve, Eddie Marsan as Peter; and Rosamund Pike as Oliver’s sister, the much-desired Sam. Throw in Pierce Brosnan as former school teacher, Mr. Shephard, and you have a formidably well-chosen cast.
The broader satire is directed at those English country towns, with their ethic of conformity and mediocrity. The quaint village pubs have all been taken over by large chains, becoming identical franchises. Those who stayed in the town are still doing the same things they did when they were teenagers. They were a race of robots even before the aliens arrived.
It transpires that the alien invaders see potential in the human race but are exasperated by our violent, idiotic tendencies. Gary is a particularly good example, being always ready to launch into an impassioned speech about freedom from the perspective of a seasoned no-hoper. As opposed to those wholesome moral values that permeate even the most violent and trashy Hollywood movies, it’s refreshing that the great theme of The World’s End is the human right to act like an idiot.
Perhaps the makers of Greetings From Tim Buckley had a sneak preview of The World’s End. For much of this bio pic, Penn Badgley does a pretty good job of portraying Jeff Buckley as an idiot, although I may have got the wrong impression.
The movie is intended as the story of a son coming to terms with the legacy of a talented but wayward father. In preparing to perform at a 1991 Tim Buckley tribute concert, 24-year-old Jeff has to overcome his feelings of anxiety and resentment, before emerging as a star in his own right. He is assisted by a love affair with a young woman named Allie (Imogen Poots), who claims she is a “big, big fan” of Jeff’s dad.
Allie is a catalyst in this story but never much of a personality, which is a waste of a very promising character actress. Poots was more at home playing Debbie, the hopeless daughter of porn tycoon, Paul Raymond, in The Look of Love.
The concert arrives as the inevitable, triumphant moment, but for most of the time the story meanders along with Jeff acting sulky or goofy. He bursts into song in a record shop, sobs alone in his hotel room, and generally behaves like an overgrown adolescent. This may be a perfectly accurate portrait, but Badgely’s performance will jar with many admirers who have put Jeff Buckley on a pedastle on the strength of one acclaimed album, Grace (1994), and a tragically early death.
Greetings From Tim Buckley often seems like a movie made by a fan for an audience of other fans. It lacks any narrative dynamism, with most characters remaining little more than impressionistic sketches. One is hardly introduced to the musicians performing at the concert, even such figures as punk rocker, Richard Hell (Frank Bello); and guitarist, Gary Lucas (Frank Wood), known for his work with Captain Beefheart’s The Magic Band.
Director, Daniel Algrant, has chosen to intersperse Jeff Buckley’s path to self-awareness with flashbacks to his father’s era. Ben Rosenfield plays Tim Buckley, performing in clubs, driving cross-country in search of work, hanging out with girl friends and fellow musicians; even attending a Charles Mingus gig. Tim has little to do with Jeff’s mother, who never appears on screen. His major paternal act is to sneaks back home to peek at his son in the crib.
The connections between Tim and Jeff’s worlds are tenuous at best. We end by feeling that we barely know either of them. This is a let-down because the Buckleys have a legendary dimension, having both demonstrated precocious talent before dying young. Tim perished of a drug overdose in 1975, aged only 28; while Jeff accidentally drowned in the Memphis River in July 1997, at the age of 30.
If this movie achieves any greater purpose, it will be to alert a new generation to Tim Buckley’s music. Buckley had one of the most distinctive voices in popular music, able to swoop from a falsetto to a baritone in seconds. As a musician he was virtually unclassifiable. Although the early albums might be seen as folk music, he incorporated elements of blues, rock, jazz and soul, occasionally venturing into highly experimental territory where the voice played the role of an instrument.
As someone who still has seven Tim Buckley albums on his iPod, I looked forward to hearing the music in a biographical context, but many of the songs seem to have been arbitrarily chosen. Irritatingly, they drift in while characters are speaking, drowning out the dialogue. This has the secondary effect of making one realise the dialogue is not especially important.
The most relevant song is I Never Asked to be Your Mountain, which deals in an oblique way with Tim Buckley’s decision to desert his wife and child. This was the first number Jeff performed in the tribute concert, and it apparently bought the house down.
None of that excitement is conveyed in this lacklustre tale that manages to do so little with the classic theme of ‘absent fathers and lost sons’. Penn Badgely’s Jeff Buckley is no Oedipus Rex, he’s not even a Tom Sawyer, who seemed to get along well enough without a father. It may be possible to be overly influenced by the last film one has seen, but I couldn’t help noticing a curious resemblance to Gary King.
The World’s End, UK, rated MA 15+, 109 mins
Greetings From Tim Buckley, USA, rated M, 99 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, August 3, 2013