[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August, 1978]
If anyone had told me I was going to enjoy a movie called The Buddy Holly Story, I’d have nominated him as a prime candidate for the funny farm. But I went to see the thing at a trade screening on a slow summer afternoon, and I enjoyed it very much indeed. The pleasures were various. In a season dominated by movies hung on one musical hook or other and conceived as bubble gum for the eyes, ears, and mind, I took no small satisfaction in a film that not only served up distinctive music with gusto but did so without welshing on its obligation to move professionally and purposefully as film narrative. Also, with filmmakers at both the A and B levels shamelessly falling back on broad nostalgia as raison détre, structural strategy, and prime sales point, the makers of The Buddy Holly Story—the very title says it—had enough love and respect for the bygone sub-genre of the musical biopic to reach back and not merely recreate one as a sort of cinematic fossil exhibit in motion, but make a legitimate movie.
The film earns its right to stand up and represent, however fictionally and sentimentally, high and low points in the life of someone who changed the music and culture and life around him with what he did and how he did it on musical stages, in recording studios, in roller rinks and garages and agents’ offices and producers’ private sanctums. There’s a complete guilelessness and freedom from patronizing in the generic set-pieces: the run-ins with hometown folk who don’t appreciate the artist’s “sound,” the fluky first success, the comical/inspirational refusal to play the new music according to the tastes of exploitative middlemen, the life-or-death appearance before a potentially hostile audience (an exhilarating sequence as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, assumed to be a black group, show up and triumph at a Harlem music hall), the discovery of true love along the way to success, the breakup of lifelong friend- and partnerships as the star climbs higher and grows brighter. New director Steve Rash doesn’t grandstand or do anything to shift attention from where it belongs, on Holly and his music, but he keeps his movie lively to look at: in the way the boys and girls at the Lubbock, Texas rollerama start winking by in foreground silhouette as Holly’s group switches from Les Paul and Mary Ford to one of their own compositions, and the visual excitement builds in proportion to the musical; in a fluid, unbroken take that tracks Buddy and his partners from their Harlem dressingroom, down flights of stairs, closer and closer to an audibly worked-up audience who have no idea what’s about to be disclosed when those curtains open; in a wonderfully low-key moment in a car traveling between Lubbock and Nashville that, for the record, strikes me as one of the most unaffected and convincing attempts to show a song a-bornin’ I’ve ever encountered in a movie (Buddy in the backseat picking out a tentative tune on the guitar, Jesse improvising runs with his sticks on the upholstery and dashboard, Ray Bob thumping the steering wheel now and again, and the whole thing just yearning to turn into a full-fledged “Peggy Sue”—which it doesn’t).
But what really puts the movie over is the actor in the title role, Gary Busey. Busey has always had a really weird intensity about him, so that you don’t trust him not to start going to pieces right before your eyes (v. his troublemaking doper in Straight Time or The Masochist in Milius’s Big Wednesday). One slight turn of the head as he sits listening to the preacher in his hometown church inveigh against his kind of music as the work of the Devil promises an explosion—not at the windy parson or the congregation or his dubious parents, but through a series of compositions and performances that will simply give such nonsense the lie. He never acts more powerfully than when playing Holly in musical motion. (He, Don Stroud as drummer Jesse, and Charles—heretofore, Charlie—Martin Smith as bassman Ray Bob are actually doing everything it looks and sounds as if they’re doing, and none of it was rerecorded. It is a tribute to their energy and authenticity as screen presences that their very convincing musical performances seem markedly dimmer when merely listened to on the soundtrack album.) Like Ronee Blakley’s Barbara Jean in Nashville, Busey’s is a galvanic creation that absolutely states and describes how music and identity fuse incandescently when special beings step in front of an audience. And as with Barbara Jean, the snuffing-out of such a life at the height of creative power leaves the film audience feeling irreparably deprived. The
Buddy Holly Story ends with Busey/Holly charging through a medley of his most emblematic hits; he finishes “Not Fade Away,” cries “See ya next year!” to the Midwestern concert audience, and is held in freezeframe on the upsurge of that gesture; a title fades in to tell us, as we knew, that the 22-year-old Holly was killed later that night of February 3, 1959, in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa. Film Row audiences are pretty tacky, by and large, but everyone in attendance that afternoon stayed seated and silent during the long end credits. That seemed to matter. It still does.
© 1978 Richard T. Jameson
THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY
Direction: Steve Rash. Screenplay: Robert Gittler, after a story by Steve Rash and Fred Bauer. Cinematography: Stevan Larner. Production design: Joel Schiller. Editing: David Blewitt. Songs and music: Buddy Holly (mostly). Music director: Joe Renzetti. Production: Fred Bauer; executive: Edward H. Cohen, Fred T. Kuehnert.
The players: Gary Busey, Don Stroud, Charles Martin Smith, Bill Jordan, Marcia Richwine, Conrad Janis, Albert Popwell, Amy Johnston, Dick O’Neil, Stymie Beard, Paul Mooney, Arch Johnson, Neva Patterson, Gailaird Sartain, Fred Travalena, Gloria Irricari.