The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Posted: April 17, 2014 in Movie Review
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The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Director: Steve Rash

Starring: Gary Busey, Don Stroud, Charles Martin Smith, Conrad Janis, Paul Mooney

Too many of the giants of rock n’ roll have left this world in a premature and tragic way, at far too young an age and just when we’d gotten familiar with them. A lot of the time some kind of drugs were involved, but others did not have control over their own fate when they departed this life. However they died, this often becomes the one thing about them that the general public talks about most. February 3, 1959 will forever be known as “The Day the Music Died.” This was the day when Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, died in a plane crash in Iowa. Holly in particular had such an important role to play in the history of rock n’ roll that the method of his demise, while horrible, is not the final word on his life and career.

In 1955, Charles Hardin Holley, the man who would come to be known as Buddy Holly (Gary Busey), was just a 19-year old kid from Lubbock, Texas. Together with Jesse Charles and Ray Bob Simmons (Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith, playing characters based on Holly’s real-life bandmates J.I. Allison and Joe B. Mauldin), Holly forms his rock n’ roll band The Crickets. Very early on, Buddy expresses displeasure with the way the recording industry works, and insists that his band have full control over what kind of music they will play. It takes a little bit of arm-twisting, but producer Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) sees a gold mine with Buddy Holly and the Crickets, and he’s not about to let them just walk out the door. Through his business relationship with Turner, Holly meets his future wife, Maria Elena Santiago, who was working as Turner’s secretary at the time.

In the next four years, Buddy Holly and the Crickets churn out several hits (among them, “That’ll Be the Day” and “Everyday” are personal favorites), and in the process they manage to fool more than a few as to just what kind of men they really were. One of my favorite scenes has them booked to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. In an age before cable television, 24-hour news and the Internet, somebody forgot to inform the theater’s manager that Buddy and his band are all Caucasian boys, and as such would be the first to play at the Apollo. He initially declines to let them perform but as he had with the record producer, Buddy finds a way to change the man’s mind, arguing that the contract which the band signed technically said nothing about performing, merely to make a week-long “appearance.” Buddy knows that he can get his band on stage at the Apollo because the manager will find a certain financial irresponsibility in the prospect of paying them for doing nothing. They go on as scheduled, and actually manage to win over the all-African American crowd. In reality, it took a few shows for this to work, not just one. Doesn’t matter… It’s a great moment.

One watches “The Buddy Holly Story” always with the title character’s fate in the back of your mind. The love story between Buddy and Maria is particularly bittersweet because we know how it ends. We are at least spared a reenactment of the plane crash, as the movie ends with Holly’s final performance. I have long regarded Gary Busey as the American Sean Bean, a reference to how the English actor always seems to play characters that end up dying. I can’t think of a single movie I’ve seen featuring Busey where his character isn’t pushing up the daisies before the fade to black, at least not right off hand. “The Buddy Holly Story” almost qualifies, except for the text over his image at the end which reminds us of that which we need not be reminded. Mostly, I’ve seen him in villainous roles (which accounts for his filmography’s high death ratio), some comic relief roles and even one or two in law enforcement. Although he is never fully absorbed into the character… sometimes you believe him, while other times he seems like Busey dressed as Holly. I can find no other role which Gary Busey has played which is more unlike anything else he has done than that of Buddy Holly. Particularly impressive is the gutsy move of having him sing all of Holly’s songs, which Busey is able to handle quite well. It’s a shame the part didn’t win him any awards, although it does stand as the only film to earn him a Best Actor nomination for the Golden Globes, BAFTA, and the Oscars.

One of the fatal flaws of most biographical motion pictures is historical inaccuracy. Often you get a movie like “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story,” which makes the mistake of assuming its audience knows nothing about the title character and rearranges events in the timeline to suit its needs. “The Buddy Holly Story” also takes advantage of the truth for drama’s sake, but never in a especially egregious fashion. Even depicting his parents as unsupportive of his chosen career path shouldn’t be looked at as a major problem, considering that Lawrence and Ella Holley aren’t in the movie for very long.

We will never know what else Buddy Holly might have had in store for us all had he not died in that plane crash, but that doesn’t mean his spirit has not lived on in others. His four short years in the business do not mean that he can’t be counted among the most influential forces in rock n’ roll. Elvis Costello sounds eerily Holly-esque, and Paul McCartney himself has stated (and I quote): “If it wasn’t for the Crickets, there wouldn’t be any Beatles.” Countless other acts from that era can say that they received inspiration from hearing the music of Buddy Holly. Without him and Elvis Presley, it’s arguable that rock n’ roll would not exist, at least not as the entity we know. Comparitively speaking, “The Buddy Holly Story” has not remained as fresh in the minds of the public as other movies from 1978 (“Animal House,” “The Deer Hunter” and “Superman,” to name a few), nor even amidst the genre of music-related films. But if watching it gets someone from the generations born after 1959 interested in listening to Buddy Holly’s songs (as it should), that more than anything would be a testament to his legacy.

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