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Penn Badgley plays singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley.Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail

Dan Algrant's quest for his leading man was drawing a big blank. "I'd been searching the world, travelled to London twice to meet people," said the New York-born director/screenwriter, recalling the experience. More than 100 audition tapes had been sent to the production office. James Franco was being mentioned ("because I'd been told I should be casting stars"). Rob Pattinson, too. "Everybody had an opinion."

But by spring 2011, Algrant pretty much believed he'd never find that special someone he wanted, no … needed to play the late, lamented, now-legendary alt-folk singer Jeff Buckley. "In fact, I was ready not to make the film." Then he watched an audition tape featuring Penn Badgley. Somehow the then-24-year-old studly star of the hit teen TV soap Gossip Girl and recently splitsville beau of the bodacious Blake Lively had gotten hold of Algrant's script and here he was, doing this madcap scene where Buckley, young woman in tow, walks into a vinyl record store and begins a twisted a cappella reading of songs from Led Zeppelin III ("Valhalla, I am … cuh-wuh-wuh-wuh-miiiiing-uh!").

Algrant was transfixed. He had found his Jeff Buckley. But it was "both blessing and liability. I mean, it was Penn Badgley, for Chrissake," even as Algrant admitted he'd never watched Gossip Girl. He knew his belief "that this young man could be our sacred person" might encounter resistance from colleagues doubting his seriousness. Algrant persevered nevertheless, then prevailed – and at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, where the resultant film, Greetings from Tim Buckley, had its world premiere, Algrant's instincts were proved 100-per-cent correct.

For Badgley, interviewed in Toronto, the movie was nothing less than "a birth for me as an actor … me realizing after 13 years working professionally that I actually enjoyed acting. And I think that shows. I was having an experience; I felt I was bringing the best that I could to it." Shot that summer in just 23 days in and around New York, the film nonetheless has a loose-limbed, unhurried, naturalistic feel which Badgley, he of the lantern jaw, chiselled cheekbones and just-so three-day growth of facial hair, especially appreciated after five seasons of grinding out Gossip Girl. "With TV, you have no time, dude. Everything is, like, face, face, face, talk, talk, talk, talk, talk, whereas this was, like, 'Stretch out for a second, man.' It was so wonderful, so, so … beautiful."

Greetings from Tim Buckley is, in fact, two pictures in one or, more precisely, two juxtaposed stories. The primary one, set in April 1991, deals with a pre-fame 24-year-old Jeff Buckley travelling from California to Brooklyn to perform at a tribute concert for his father, Tim. Dead at 28 from a heroin overdose in 1975, the elder Buckley by this time had posthumously achieved near-mythic status, thanks to an octave-spanning voice and a body of achingly beautiful songs that owed as much to jazz and the blues as folk.

While Buckley fils never really knew his feckless father – indeed, they met only once, briefly – it's clear the elder Buckley's artistic legacy was at once impediment, burden and goad to his son. The film's secondary story serves up interstitial scenes from Buckley père's heyday (with Ben Rosenfield playing Tim), pushing the narrative to the climactic tribute concert where Jeff, in finally accepting his father as a sort of musical soul mate, paradoxically discovers his own voice. It's a crossroads moment and, as music buffs know, the road chosen would lead to Jeff Buckley's own premature death, by drowning, in 1997.

Unsurprisingly, Badgley came to see Greetings from Tim Buckley as his own fork on fame's highway, a casting coup that might permit him to recast his life and art. While he claims most of the cues for his performance came from the script, he also worked with a vocal coach and guitar teacher, listened to the Buckley oeuvre, researched his life, even went on a raw food diet to achieve the requisite Buckley skinniness. At the same time, he stressed he wasn't aiming to reincarnate the artist.

"For this little slice of Jeff's life, I knew I could do it. Not all of Jeff Buckley, mind you, because, Jesus Christ, no one could do that. And when I say 'it,' it's because it's not about doing him. Like, it's a movie, it's not real, I'm not him. As long as I can do it justice so that people aren't focusing on whether I can or can't play like Jeff and just let the story take them … People can get so obsessed with the minutiae of biopics. Well, who cares if it's not him? Why not just tell a story so that you forget about that, so you can feel something, y'know?"

Much of the film's charm comes from the poignant rapport Badgley has with its leading lady, British actress Imogen Poots, who plays Allie, a free-spirited assistant to the production crew mounting the tribute concert. "I was falling in love with my current girlfriend at that time [Zoe Kravitz, daughter of Lenny, and an actor and singer in her own right] and what was beautiful is that Imogen and I were allowed to have the trust and gentleness of a platonic love … At the same time I was also very much falling in love so I had that quality in my blood, y'know what I mean?"

Emboldened by the musical side of his performance in Greetings from Tim Buckley, Badgley intends to "play a lot more and write more," with the aim of releasing a recording online and on vinyl. But he's going to do it "on the quiet" for a while because "I want to step away from Jeff."