James Franco And The Search For ‘Mystery White Boy’s’ Jeff Buckley

It’s been eighteen years since Jeff Buckley released his 1994 debut album Grace. Since then, his legacy has been kept alive by his mother and sole heir to his estate, Mary Guibert. Guibert once said, “This is my life’s work.” Over the years, it has been proven to be laborious work. Since his death in 1997, four documentaries have been made surrounding the musician’s legacy. This month, actor Penn Badgley makes his Tribeca debut as the first theatrical portrayal of Jeff Buckley on film in Greetings From Tim Buckley.

Jeff Buckley’s enigmatic energy has been dressed up and dramatized by many, pointing to the singer suffering from bipolar disorder and drug use, which has since been denied by close friends. With all of these fantastical ideas floating around, the possibility of a full-fledged biopic coming to fruition was inevitable. The bigger question has become, “Who will play Jeff Buckley?” For years, different actors and musicians have been heatedly debated as the lead man in the race to play Buckley. The one that stands out above the rest is James Franco.

After Guibert took a meeting with famous fan Brad Pitt in 2004, who at the time was keen to produce the flick, the “official” biopic Mystery White Boy was born. Since that meeting, Pitt is believed to have dropped out due to problems regarding legalities involving ex-wife Jennifer Aniston, who shared the Plan B production company. However, Mystery White Boy is unique in that it’s the only Buckley biopic Guibert is guiding and the only one to have sole rights to his original music as a resource via Sony, and author David Browne’s Dream Brother: The Lives of Jeff and Tim Buckley as a creative guide.

In 2011, it was announced that son of Ripley Scott, director Jake Scott, would direct the film with a script by Ryan Jaffre. At one point, Spider-Man Turn Off The Dark Broadway rocker Reeve Carney was announced to portray Buckley, but all of that fell through after director Amy Berg was set to replace Scott after months of zero development. Throughout the different changed hands and announced biopics, James Franco’s name has been the only consistent strand within the problematic web of Mystery White Boy.

James Franco

For Franco it’s safe to bet it would be a dream role. Back in 2009, the actor even addressed his uncanny resemblance to Jeff Buckey. When asked about who he would love to play in an interview, radio host Edith Bowman pushed for Jeff Buckley. “I hear that more than anything,” the actor said. “I would [do it.] I’m a big fan.” Apparently the big elephant no one could ignore, finally reached Buckley’s mother and the two were involved in unofficial discussions considering his portrayal.

This was a huge movement to hear back in 2009. Guibert is known to have turned down versions of scripts she didn’t believe in, and, as far as we know even today, with other names thrown into the mix, aside from Reeve Carney, Franco and Robert Pattinson are the only actors Guibert has personally met for the role. Something that Franco has an edge over Pattinson is that Guibert is a fan of Franco. The actor revealed that Buckley’s mother “..just wrote me an e-mail and said she liked my performance in Milk, so maybe that’s a good sign.”

It’s certainly not a surprise, even Robert Pattinson who was said to be dead set on the role, had said that Franco is one of his favorite actors, adding, “He’s intriguing in everything he does, and he seems to have so many interests that he never does the same things.” Those many interests include performance art, writing, teaching students, and painting. If anything, Franco is the best pick because he and Buckley share a common love of the arts as Buckley was always seen drawing. His artwork later turned up on many of his re-released albums.

Jeff Buckley

Having interests in common is handy for research, but the huge undertaking, especially with critics and naysayers ready to nitpick, is capturing the true physicality of Jeff. As melancholy as he was a total goofball, Franco can bring both the light and the dark to this role, having excelled at roles of both dramatic and comedic genres. Critics loved him as goofy Saul Silver in Pineapple Express, and his intensity in films like James Dean and 127 Hours is hard to miss. Even Franco admitted he at times took himself too seriously and has since learned to lighten up a bit, and the same could be said for certain perceptions of Buckley; a light soul with a sensitive undertow.

A conduit of intriguing energy, Franco might have a more intimate understanding to what it takes to portray Buckley. The two prove to have a lot in common. Growing up at the height of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, as a flannel-wearing teen, Franco would have been acutely aware of the popularity of teen angst in the music scene, something that Buckley was pushing against even though he was a product of some of that culture. Although Nirvana was the answer for many teens back in the mid 90s, both Buckley and Franco gravitated towards the rooted music of The Smiths. Both grew up slightly in the shadow of their fathers. While Buckley had Tim to live up to, James had his father’s brilliance, and was urged by his parents to be a man of mathematics, and reluctantly took an internship at Lockheed Martin, which he hated.

While Buckley called his Southern California upbringing as “rootless trailer trash.” Franco penned a semi-autobiographical book Palo Alto, which explained the gritty, lost souls he used to hang out with while growing up in Palo Alto, California. Although neighborhoods were vast, with Franco attending high school with Steve Jobs’ daughter, like Buckley, Franco has said he was often bullied.

Jeff Buckley

While a little digging would prove the men have a similar background, and uncanny looks in common, the one big question surrounding Mystery White Boy is who could take on Jeff Buckley’s soaring four-octave range? Franco posed a similar question, “Who can sing like Jeff Buckley? That’s the problem.” While it’s easy to agree with Franco, there seems to be an easy solution. The production should take advantage of the rights they have, and use the original songs. No one wants to hear anyone try to emulate Jeff Buckley’s voice, especially when his music will be the center of the biopic. Although it looks like he can work his way around a guitar, Franco doesn’t have the vocal chops. It’s obvious that with a legendary voice, Buckley’s music should speak for itself.

If Franco takes on the role of Buckley as it’s widely suggested he should, this wouldn’t be the only real life figure he took on. While he started his career taking on action heroes, its his experience bringing real people to life like, James Dean (James Dean), Scott Smith (Milk), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), and Aaron Ralston (127 Hours), that has critics singing praises to the actor. His extreme dedication to getting a person just right stands out from the rest. Something that Franco particularly does well is playing historical icons and taking them down a notch to make them human. We certainly don’t need someone playing up Buckley’s iconic image, we’ve had that attached to his music for way too long. Further more, Franco does have experience with using “the method.” Early in his acting career, the young man cut his family off for three months while playing the isolated and universally misunderstood James Dean.

Mystery White Boy

Oddly enough there’s many parallels drawn from James Dean and Jeff Buckley that would seem to fit Franco like a glove. Take journalist Bill Falangan observing Buckley in a 1997 feature, “..seeing Jeff, leaning against the studio glass strumming his Rickenbacker, looking like James Dean crucified on his shot-gun in ‘Giant.’ For the first time it seems possible that Jeff Buckley won’t have to wait long to become famous. Whether that would be a blessing or a curse is a separate discussion.”

In terms of James Franco being the best fit for Mystery White Boy, it’s safe to call it a blessing in disguise.

Hear James Franco talk about playing Jeff Buckley below:

[Jeff Buckley Photos: all rights reserved to Merri Cyr]