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March 04, 2005

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Palo Alto Online

Publication Date: Friday, March 04, 2005

Jeff Buckley comes alive at Cinequest Jeff Buckley comes alive at Cinequest (March 04, 2005)

Late singer-songwriter inspired two first-time filmmakers

by Susan Tavernetti

A strikingly handsome Jeff Buckley speaks to the camera, "My main musical influence? Hmmmm."

A long, long pause follows -- giving you time to admire his chiseled face, thoughtful reflection and the filmmakers' courage to cherish the moment rather than cave in to frenzied, MTV-style cutting.

"Love, anger, depression, joy and dreams," he continues. "And Zeppelin. Totally."

His voice eases into a haunting cover of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," completely seducing you. This gifted singer-songwriter died too young. The 30-year-old musician with the four-octave voice took a nighttime dip and tragically drowned in Memphis on May 29, 1997. It was the day his music stopped and his legend began to soar.

"Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley" pays tribute to this singular artist whose life and work profoundly touched so many people. Menlo Park filmmaker Nyla Adams and Laurie Trombley, her New York-based collaborator, have lovingly crafted a 61-minute documentary that will make its West Coast debut at Cinequest 15 on March 9. The film festival opened March 2 and runs through March 13 in downtown San Jose.

"We made a film about art inspired by Jeff, and the film itself is art inspired by Jeff," Adams said. "We wanted to light people on fire the way he lit us on fire."

Ironically, Adams' first impression of Buckley wasn't so glowing. While living in a Trinity College dorm room in Hartford, Conn., someone handed her a CD of "Grace," Buckley's only full-length, studio-recorded album. The Cold Jam fan listened to the first song and gave back the 1994 Columbia Records release, insisting it was awful. Five years later, she had a different reaction to the same album.

"It just struck me. I cried listening to it, and it inspired me to write poems. And I don't write poetry," she laughed. "I thought if this is happening to me, then it must be happening to others, because I've never been affected that way."

Adams met Trombley in the copy room of A&E Television Networks in Manhattan, where they talked about making a 10-minute short dealing with Buckley's legacy of inspiration. Unlike her partner-to-be, Trombley had immediately connected to Buckley's vocal stylings and Telecaster guitar licks while working as music editor of the College of New Rochelle's newspaper.

"I listened to "Live at Sin-e" over and over again in one day. The songs were so emotional, so raw and so beautiful and haunting that I didn't know what to make of them. They made my head spin around. The album moved me so much that I wrote him a letter stating that I would work for him for free," Trombley said.

To her surprise, Buckley himself called and from 1994 to 1995 Trombley interned at the management firm representing him. She became his fan-relations manager.

"That speaks volumes of who he was as a person. Jeff took chances and was open-hearted."

Because Buckley had handpicked Trombley, his mother agreed to meet with the earnest pair who hoped to moonlight as first-time filmmakers. Although they later learned that Mary Guibert had intended to refuse their request, the women hit it off. Guibert liked their proposal to focus on her son's impact -- not biography -- and to expose American audiences to the remarkable Southern California artist who had emerged in New York's East Village avant-garde scene in the 1990s.

"Jeff was so gifted that he was able to integrate many different styles into his songs. He could sing anything from gospel to hard, head-banging rock 'n' roll," Adams said. "Although he's huge in England and Australia, enormous in France and Japan, and revered in South America, no one in this country knows who he is. Jeff could rock out with the best of them, but he was so emotional and so raw that he didn't fit into the Seattle grunge trend of the time. America just didn't get it."

Guibert gave them her blessing -- and access to letters, journals, photographs and other elements of Buckley's estate.

As luck would have it, Adams' cube mate at A&E overhead her talking about the project and suggested she call her husband, who worked at Sony and was vice president of Buckley's television promotion. Sony had brought Buckley in as a heritage artist, hoping he would be the next Miles Davis, Bob Dylan or Bruce Springsteen. Boxes of Buckley videotapes that no one had seen were sitting in Sony's basement. Adams and Trombley had no funding for their film, but Sony granted them the festival rights to this treasure trove of performance and interview footage.

Six years later, after 40 hours of interviews conducted by Trombley and shot by Adams, and countless editing sessions, "Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley" was completed in 2004. The accomplished documentary celebrates Buckley in song and spirit, revealing his commitment to his art, his unease with the trappings of the music business and the mystique surrounding his short but significant life.

"The reaction we've been getting from the fans has been phenomenal. That's been the best part, because we made the film for them," Adams said.

Poster girls for a festival that honors mavericks and the digital technology that enables creativity, Adams and Trombley will join other local filmmakers at Cinequest. Woodside resident Kari Nevil ("Your Guardian") will see her film, "Planting Melvin," projected on the big screen. Davina Pardo, Christina Herring and Lila Place -- graduate students in Stanford's Documentary Film and Video program -- will have shorts shown, as well as the animation team of David Pace and Victor Bellomo.

Stanford alumna Christine Nubile's "Police Blotter" reveals differences between the East Palo Alto and Atherton police entries, and Scott Smith shot part of "Charlie the Ox" in Palo Alto.

Sir Ben Kingsley ("Gandhi," "Schindler's List," "Sexy Beast"), Jon Polito ("Miller's Crossing," "The Big Lebowski," "Charlie the Ox"), Blanchard Ryan ("Super Troopers," "Open Water") and Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah (the subject of "Emmanuel's Gift") will receive Cinequest Maverick Spirit Awards.
Cinequest show times:
Nyla Adams and Laurie Trombley's "Amazing Grace: Jeff Buckley" will screen March 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the Camera 12 and March 12 at 5:15 p.m. at the University Theater on the San Jose State University campus.
Kari Nevil's "Planting Melvin" will screen March 4 at 9:15 p.m. and March 5 at 1:15 p.m., both at the San Jose Repertory Theatre.
Davina Pardo's "Birdlings Two," Christina Herring's "Chickens in the City," Lila Place's "Each One Teach One" and Christine Nubile's "Police Blotter" in "Shorts Program 3: DocuNation" will air March 8 at 7 pm and March 9 at 9:30 p.m., both at the Camera 12.
David Pace and Victor Bellomo's "Spirit of Gravity" in "Shorts Program 4: Animated World" will screen March 5 at 12:30 p.m. and March 7 at 7 p.m., both at Camera 12.
Scott Smith's "Charlie the Ox" will screen March 5 at 5:15 p.m. at the San Jose Repertory Theatre and March 6 at 4 p.m. at the Camera 12.

What: Cinequest San Jose Film Festival 2005
When: The festival runs March 2-13
Where: Screenings will take place at Camera 12 Cinemas (201 S. Second St. in San Jose), California Theatre (345 South First St. in San Jose), San Jose Repertory Theatre (101 Paseo de San Antonio in San Jose), San Jose State University Theater (corner of Fifth and San Fernando Streets) and San Jose State University Hal Todd Theater (adjacent to the University Theater).

Cost: Tickets are $9 general admission; $5 students (with valid ID). Tickets are $10 for the opening or closing-night Gala (premiere Screening only) or $50 (includes party). A ten-pack (10 vouchers to attend 10 regular screenings of choice) is $70. Maverick Spirit Events cost $15-30. A variety of passes are available.

Information: Tickets are available through March 13 by calling (408) 295-FEST (3378), online at or at the box offices of the San Jose Repertory Theatre and San Jose State University Theater. In case of a sell-out, rush tickets will go on sale 30 minutes prior to the event, on a cash-only, first-come, first-served basis.

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