[Originally published in Movietone News 26, October 1973]
The Last American Hero is an entertaining genre picture with a serious-sounding title, and so it runs the risk of being underrated in some quarters and overrated in others. Its vision is more casual than the title would imply, yet richer than its unadorned folksiness pretends. First and foremost, it is a highly charged but straightforward story about a young stockcar racer (Jeff Bridges) riding skill, arrogance, and need into the big money. Lamont Johnson and crew prove responsive to both the racing scene and the cars themselves, and give a sense of the action that is close to the excitement but free of adulatory packaging. Although the title suggests the possibility of an exercise in the pre-digested, pre-fab cynicism which seems to be a staple of contemporary American cinema, this action film focuses on its people as much as its action, and a good deal of its power comes from the way its sharply etched characters develop in various convincingly observed milieux. Valerie Perrine as a sort of stockcar groupie overcompensating for a lonely adolescence, Gary Busey as Bridges’s oafish yet alert brother, Art Lund as their wearily rugged-individualist father, and Ed Lauter as a sinuously efficacious racing manager are all major collaborators in enlivening and authenticating a project that might easily have been routine.
In the summer of 1991, the received wisdom on Kathryn Bigelow—especially in the wake of Point Break—was that she was a rising star, making a mark on Hollywood where other women directors had not, by applying her talent to traditional action genres. Here was a woman who made men’s films, not women’s, and was rewarded for it by both critics and the box office.
Those turned out to be half-truths. Today, anyone who’s been paying attention can see that in adopting the male gaze, and in making two films in which women barely mattered and one in which they barely appeared, Bigelow wasn’t selling out, but was illuminating more about women than a dozen “women’s movies” ever could. It wasn’t about making it in a man’s world; it was about confronting and puncturing the eternally adolescent self-importance of “men’s work”—sabotaging not only the buddy action movie, but the whole testosterone-soaked world of moviemaking both on screen and off.
Buddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!
Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.
Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.
The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
[Originally published in Movietone News 58-59, August 1978]
I saw StraightTime on a double feature, and didn’t know quite what to make of it. Next day, I remembered the second feature vividly and StraightTime almost not at all. Yet I had trouble finding anything specifically wrong with this Chinese dinner of a movie. It’s cleanly made, easy to watch, competently acted—three of the supporting roles are splendidly played: parole officer Earl Frank (M. Emmet Walsh), suburbanite crime-dabbler Jerry Schue (Harry Dean Stanton), and disturbed ex-con and family man Willy Darin (Gary Busey)—and never less than interesting. Yet in the end it contributes nothing in story or style that seems to add to the currently fashionable dialogue about rehabilitation and recidivism. If there is nothing especially faulty or offensive about the film, neither is there anything outstanding or affecting about it; and it’s that terminal blandness that finally kills Straight Time for me.
[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.
[originally published in Film Comment Volume 31, Number 5, September/October 1995]
Kathryn Bigelow’s 1987 genre-juicing vampire film Near Dark opens close up on a leggy mosquito poised to tap into screen-spanning flesh. Apt epigraph for a film about heartland bloodsuckers; but also your ticket into any of the intensely sensual, romantically nihilistic excursion – The Loveless, Blue Steel, Point Break, and now Strange Days – head-tripped by this dark daughter of Hawks and Hitchcock. Bigelow’s movies gauge psyches and society in extremis, running on empty. Her nomadic protagonists, “riders” of one stripe or another, hooked on whatever “zap” best fuels them, cruise the nervous systems of her often hyperreal “outside” – unspooling ribbons of baked macadam, rain- and neon-slicked streets, granite-gray arches of breaking surf, even brightly surging brainwaves – trying to stay ahead of their own shadows.
Latterday kin to Hawks’s daredevil existentialists, Bigelow folk all hanker after heartstopping action and spectacle, the sort of “speed” that punches life up to top gear and outruns terminal ennui. Hanging out on the edge of the world, emotionally and in the flesh, these are orphans to the bone – loners, outlaws, pariahs. Plugged into jerry-rigged “families” for dangerous shelter, their rage and despair often explode into demonic self-projections.
[Originally published in Movietone News 66-67, March 1981]
Three people warned me off Carnybefore I went to see it. I went anyway, partly to see Gary Busey and partly because I had a feeling about it. I canâ€™t articulate that feeling any more now that Iâ€™ve seen the film than I could before I went to it; but Iâ€™m glad I saw it. Not that itâ€™s a really terrific movieâ€”not by a long shot. In fact, itâ€™s easier to list the reasons I didnâ€™t have for liking Carnythan the ones I had. Originality, for example: the film is strictly Nashvillemeets Freakson Nightmare Alley(but Robertson and Kaylor draw from good sources). Technically, the film is uninventive, and often downright poor (for example, the transparent and awful stunt work in the shot where Elisha Cook is supposed to be run down by a car). The film suffers from uncertain and inappropriately slow pacing, too, brought on mostly by indecision as to which particular subplot should become the main plot, or whether any of them should. Well, itâ€™s the freedom of the documentary filmmaker not to be limited by having to tell a story,and Carnyis just the sort of film one might expect a documentary director to make on his first sortie into fictional narrative cinema. Wisely, Kaylor doesnâ€™t abuse his freedom from plot by leaving his film formless. Instead he builds it around character. Andâ€”again, as might be expected of a documentaristâ€”in this film, character is inseparable from performance.