It is impossible to view Steve Rash’s 1978 biopic, The Buddy Holly Story without the pall of Holly’s fateful last act hanging over the entire exercise as though it were the sword of Damocles. Holly, who helped originate and pioneer a new musical style (eventually quantified by some brilliant record producer as ‘rock and roll’); who seemed to appear out of the nothingness of the Texas tumbleweed in an instant, soar to meteoric heights in an equally as short period of time, then vanish into the night as though he’d never existed at all (along with Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper; their plane crashing just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa in 1959); this is, most regrettably, the stuff from which dreams – alas, nightmares, too – but moreover, and, to the point, genuine legends are made. In its bittersweet epilogue, The Buddy Holly Story is dedicated to ‘the three who loved him first’ – and arguably, most; Holly’s parents (played in the movie by Neva Patterson and Arch Johnson) and his wife, Maria Elena Santiago (Maria Richwine). What the film does spectacularly well, especially considering its miniscule $1.2 million budget (you can’t even shoot a half hour kids show today for that figure), is to capture and bottle the essence of a mania, when middleclass American ‘traditionalism’ was suddenly overtaken by the strains, hiccups and growing pains of its more vibrant youth culture, itching to bust out of suburbia and ‘shake, shake, shake’ their collective booty.
Gary Busey, who only a scant few years earlier had made an unremarkable debut in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), electrifies the screen with a blistering presence of mind to give us Buddy Holly – as a man, performer, legend and the most unexpected pop sensation; also, in retrospect, something of a martyr before his time, instilling every last frame of The Buddy Holly Story with the sort of monumental sincerity sparking off a seasoned pro, performing all of Holly’s songs - in his own voice – and live, no less – a daunting prospect for any actor. The frenetic energy bursting forth from Busey’s diminutive frame (the actor shed 32 lbs. to play Holly) sears itself into our collective consciousness with the white hot glow of Holly’s lightning genius, giving us a sense of Holly’s accomplished, chameleon-like agility, and, a truly profound and intuitive compassion on Busey’s part for his subject. We get Buddy Holly as a frustrated, socially inept adolescent; also, utterly driven perfectionist, and finally, something of a puckish rebel; dumping his Waspish girlfriend, Cindy Lou (Amy Johnston) at the bus depot with an abrupt, if cheery ‘Boola Boola’ as she disbelievingly looks on in stunned dismay.
Too few biographical films misplace the essential kernel of ‘truth’ when relaying the past. Arguably, one of the selling features of any biopic is its period recreation; resurrecting a bygone era for nostalgic purposes. But good camouflage is no substitute for great acting, and what The Buddy Holly Story lacks in the scope of its vintage authenticity it more than makes up for with Gary Busey’s pluperfect performance. An actor playing a character who was actually a real person is a little like tightrope walking as a human, but dressed like a dancing bear, attempting the same feat on roller skates. The actor truly has to ‘make it’ in the performance; not merely appear in familiar garb as a competent (even superb) mimic, but sincerely thrive, overcome and transcend the mystique; making the past live again in the present – if only for an hour or two. Busey’s Charles Harden Holley does this in spades and then some; the actor disappearing inside the cocoon of his alter ego, only to emerge as a living testament to his twenty-two year old man of the hour.
To truly appreciate and contextualize the film as art – as opposed to reality – we must first, pause, give ourselves a moment’s silence to decompress from its toe-tapping sensationalism, and, alas, marginally digress, to point out The Buddy Holly Story was never intended as either fact or history. Initially, it wasn’t even being conceived for the movie screen – rather, a teleplay later expanded for theatrical consideration. Despite the real Buddy Holly’s clairvoyance in helping to introduce and trademark a ‘new’ sound in American pop music, his reputation as an innovator in the business had been almost forgotten by the time The Buddy Holly Story went before the cameras. In fact, another Holly film project (Three Sided Coin, in which, ironically, Busey was scheduled to appear as The Cricket’s drummer) had already been shelved by 2oth Century-Fox due to lack of interest. So, The Buddy Holly Story was hardly a slam dunk with a pre-sold title and subject matter to sell tickets.
Much has been made of the fact Robert Gittler’s screenplay takes enormous artistic liberties in translating Holly’s life and times into movie magic. Fair enough, Holly’s band, ‘The Crickets’ were marginalized, reduced from three to two cast members (more manageable/less expensive), and renamed after the real Crickets had already sold their portrayal rights to another producer for the aforementioned defunct Holly movie. And equally valid, the conflict emerging between Holly and his drummer, Jesse Charles (played with sullen grace by Don Stroud), depicted as something of a closet racist in the film, is said to have zero validity and no comparative value with Holly’s real drummer. But we’ll forgive screenwriter, Gittler his ‘liberties’ for just a moment, because what he’s managed to do is unearth that ‘kernel’ of verisimilitude about Holly as a human being from which all points of his virtuosity stem. The film also has much to say about the perennially clichéd (though thankfully not in this film) pitfalls of discovering heartache along the road to fame and success. Alas, Gittler needs no help in concocting genuine tragedy.
The Buddy Holly Story opens inauspiciously at Parker’s Roller Rink in Lubbock Texas, circa 1956; Holly already the modest celebrity of his own locally aired radio program, KDAV’s Holley’s Hay Ride’; his band consisting of base fiddle player, Ray Bob Simmons (Charles Martin Smith) and drummer, Jesse Charles. Holly’s penchant for testing the boundaries of popular music gets him in hot water with local sponsorship. But it garners him the adoration of his own generation, much to the chagrin of their ultra-conservative parents. The radio’s DJ and producer of the Holley Hayride, Riley (William Jordan) is sympathetic to Buddy’s plight. Moreover, he respects Buddy’s talents, quietly making a copy of the band’s live performance and telling Buddy he definitely has ‘something’. Alas, Buddy’s prudish gal pal, Cindy Lou (presumably, the inspiration for the song ‘Peggy Sue Got Married’) is determined to break her young buck of his musical aspirations and straightjacket Buddy with conditional love, the proverbial white picket fence and 2.5 children before the age of thirty.
After all, in the post-war Eisenhower era, this just seems like the ‘safe’ thing to do; Buddy’s parents agreeing to as much after the preacher (Richard Kennedy) of their church singles out the Holley family, in a particularly grotesque and caustic Sunday sermon, as wicked purveyors of sinful ‘jungle music’. Buddy’s dad is less sympathetic, pointing out that his music has steadily grown into an obsession when it ought to be considered as nothing more than a hobby. It’s certainly not a career, and nobody’s idea of a life. Nevertheless, and without a venue to publicly perform in after the cancellation of their show, the band continues to rehearse in the Holley’s garage, garnering their inspiration to rename the band ‘Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ after a cricket’s chirp interrupts their practice. In the meantime, Riley has sent a copy of the recording made of Buddy’s final performance at the roller rink to a producer in Nashville. The boys are over the moon when the producer picks up their option. Regrettably, excitement turns to excrement with the record producer, T.J. (John Goff) turns out to be a racist pig, attempting to pigeonhole Buddy and the band in the traditional vein as hillbilly folk singers. After attempting to cut a few tracks T.J.’s way, the episode ends badly for all concerned, Buddy socking T.J. in the face after the latter condescendingly tells him to get his ‘nigger-loving’ ass back home.
It’s back to the garage for Holly and his band when Buddy receives an impromptu phone call, long distance from New York from another D.J., Madman Mancuso (Fred Travalena), who has been inundating the Manhattan airwaves with a 24hr. Buddy Holly marathon of the three tracks recorded by Riley at the roller rink. Unaware these recordings even exist, record producer, Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) is even more disturbed to realize the minor stir Holly’s songs have created without his first being able to secure the rights beforehand, or even offer Holly and The Crickets their first major contract. Consulting with Eddie (Albert Popwell), his producer, Turner signs the band sight unseen; shocked to discover he’s just bought himself a white trio: the dismay amplified by the fact, Holly’s first big gig in Manhattan is at the Apollo: the all-black nightclub review. Instructed by the club’s promoter, Sol Gittler (Dick O’Neill) to vacate the club should things turn ugly, Buddy and The Crickets take the stage with trepidation, completely winning over the patrons and shortly thereafter going on tour with other black groups; experiencing reverse racism while attempting to book themselves into the same hotel as the rest of the entourage.
Turner offers Buddy and the boys a contract. But Buddy, recalling their disastrous experiences in Nashville, refuses the offer unless he is given absolute creative control. Bluffing they might have a better deal down the road with RCA, Buddy is elated when Turner agrees to his terms. Almost immediately, Buddy becomes smitten with Turner’s secretary, Maria Elena, whose aunt, Mrs. Santiago (Gloria Irizarry) does not approve of musicians – especially, white ones. Dressed in his Sunday best, Buddy approaches Elena’s aunt with a respectful inquiry to court her niece; his openness and congeniality completely winning over Mrs. Santiago.
Sadly, the romance is cause for a rift between Buddy and Jesse; the latter revealing his own racist predilections with an off-color comment. From here on, Buddy and The Crickets begin to drift their separate ways. Jesse grows sullen and bitter, increasingly jealous of Buddy after he is cheered to the rafters by adoring fans during one of their performance at the Avalon and brought back on stage, but without his bandmates, to vamp a little with headliner, Eddie Cochran (Jerry Zaremba) and his band (John B. Jarvis, Richard Hayward and David Miner). Buddy and The Crickets part company after a holiday special on the Ed Sullivan Show; Jesse and Ray Bob revealing their plans to return to Lubbock and form their own group.
Buddy and Elena are married and Buddy turns his attentions to successfully arranging and producing records for other artists; Turner pleased with the results, but also desiring Buddy go on the road to promote himself. Alas, without the Crickets, Buddy absolutely refuses to even entertain the notion. At Elena’s behest, Buddy reconsiders Turner’s offer. Elena, pregnant with their first child, is unable to travel with Buddy on tour, remaining in New York and pleasantly surprised when Ray Bob and Jesse – both feeling nostalgic (the latter, seemingly divorced from his narrow-minded racial prejudices) - arrive unexpectedly at the apartment to inquire whether Buddy would consider reuniting with the band. Earlier, Buddy telephoned Elena from Clear Lake to inquire about her health; also to reinforce his enduring love for her. Alas, it is their last goodbye.
We cut to the concert in Clear Lake, Holly electrifying the crowd, performing a medley of his greatest hits, at the end of, sweaty, physically depleted, but surviving on the ether of their frantic applause, he buoyantly declares “Thank you Clear Lake! C'mon. We love you. We'll see you next year”, the cheers ominously stilled with a freeze frame and a caption, detailing how Holly, along with Richie Valens (Gilbert Melgar) and the Big Bopper (Gailard Sartain) were killed in a plane crash only a few short hours later...and the rest is rock and roll.
The Buddy Holly Story remains an infectious slice of rock and roll history, despite an utterly skewwhiff reconstitution of history itself. The movie is actually a loving memoir to the enigma that was Buddy Holly and not a concise chronology of the events that gave, then cruelly deprived us of, his musical genius. Gary Busey's perceptive accomplishment carries the film beyond its fundamentally lacking element of truth; his immersion into Holly’s skin, far more resilient and enduring than the facts. When all else fails, Busey delivers mesmerizing exuberance in his Oscar-nominated role. Maria Elena Holly, who is still very much with us and remains the active custodian of her late husband’s legacy, has praised The Buddy Holly Story and continues to hold Gary Busey’s evocation in very high regard. Alas, the Crickets do not share her enthusiasm, particularly, drummer, Jerry Allison, who vehemently denies having the same racist attitudes his fictional counterpart, Jesse Charles reveals throughout the movie. Since its’ debut, debate has continued to rage over the percentage of truth reflected in The Buddy Holly Story.
While we cannot argue the facts, the movie’s modus operandi was never intended as a verbatim chronicle of Buddy Holly’s life and times; rather, a loose representation of his mystique, telescoping Holly’s vast storehouse of dreams and personal desires into a manageable, if symbolic, gesture of what his legacy has meant to the world of rock and roll ever since. This, the movie does unabashedly - and well - with a certain disregard for getting into the specifics. Unapologetically, director Steve Rash never claimed this movie to be a history of Buddy Holly – only, a reasonable facsimile with some of the warts removed/others added in for dramatic measure. Rash, and screenwriter, Robert Gittler understand the necessary dramatic arc of movie-making that must be served. Fiction and reality rarely run a parallel course, and it is at such times the biopic – as parable – serves the public interest far better as a living testament than any ‘documentary’ ever could. The Buddy Holly Story is, like Holly himself, greatness personified: not truth, but a towering achievement all the same.
Imperfect film stocks, equally as imperfect archival storage methods over the years have conspired to deprive us of the perfect visual presentation herein. We’ll tip our hats to Grover Crisp and Sony for doing their utmost to reinvigorate these problematic elements in hi-def. Alas nothing can stave off the ravages of time entirely. Released via Twilight Time as a limited edition, The Buddy Holly Story looks fairly impressive in spots and abysmally careworn in others. Again, this isn’t the fault of the transfer. When things snap together, we get a startling amount of clarity; fine details in hair, makeup, clothing, all of it popping as it should. Image inconsistency is the biggest issue. Establishing long shots are the weakest of the lot, with contrast levels ever so slightly boosted, accompanied by residual softness, minor color bleeding and advanced levels of film grain – a necessary evil in optical zooms - that actually gives the movie an added ‘documentarian’ quality I rather enjoyed…at least, in so far as it goes.
Close-ups and medium shots are the most impressively rendered. Here, grain looks quite natural and flesh tones less orangey. Sony doesn’t appear to have done any untoward digital tinkering. Depending on one’s point of view, that’s either a plus or a minus. Personally, I would have preferred Sony to have leveled off the film’s grain structure (as Universal Home Video did on their Blu-ray release of To Kill a Mockingbird 1962); not to temper or eradicate it with excessive DNR, but merely to create a more consistent transitioning from close-ups to long shots. As it stands, the shift from light/moderate to excessively heavy grain is jarring on the eyes. Personal opinion, for what it’s worth. We have no quam over Sony’s new 5.1 DTS audio, exhibiting some fairly aggressive spread across all five channels and with considerable kick during the musical performances. Good stuff. Extras are limited to an informative audio commentary from director, Steven Rash and Gary Busey; also, TT’s isolated score (fantastic, as always) and another superior mini-essay by TT’s resident writer, Julie Kirgo. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)