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November 15, 2014

Movie Review: The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Directed by Steve Rash

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

It’s a good thing that Buddy Holly (Gary Busey) – real name, Charles Hardin Holley was one of the first rock and rollers as he went directly against everything we presume about rock and rollers. Long and gangly, sporting nerd spex and white socks, Holly loved his parents, was a hard worker, went to church, loved his wife, didn’t do drugs and most importantly – wasn’t afraid to use his fists to defend his artistic integrity. All of the above flies in the face of most rock musicians, in particular those who under the advice of impresarios are told to stop doing the type of music they want to play in order to court the recent, popular trends in popular music. Holly wrote the book on what today passes for rock music, and he was persecuted and misunderstood for doing so in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas. 

Holly truly broke down borders – both musical and racial with his rock and roll. A Nashville recording session where Holly’s hits are given a country-swing arrangement, the record producer telling Holly “We don’t do nigra music here” ending in fisticuffs. Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first white band to play Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, where an initially dismayed audience quickly learned his brand of boogie. Marrying a Puerto Rican woman, Maria Elena (Maria Richwine) Holly would have the wind knocked out of him when his bandmates Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) and  Jesse (Don Stroud) head back to Texas, leaving him without backup in New York City. Encouraged to tour, Buddy has a fateful plane flight, ending his life and career at the impossibly young age of 22.

As the inestimable Julie Kirgo says in her liner notes for this limited Twilight Time release, The Buddy Holly Story was never intended to be a “by-the-book” biography of the late, great rock musician. Holly’s band is streamlined from three members – Niki Sullivan, J. I. Allison and Joe B. Maudlin – to two, played by Smith and Stroud. Working with a paltry $1.2 million budget, the producers of this film opened a lot of doors with an innovative technique almost unheard of in Hollywood. Busey and company would NOT lip-synch to playback, but play and sing live in front of the cameras. Both Holly’s widow and song owner Lee Eastman gave their approval and the film won the rights for these classic songs, for, pun intended, a song. This tasked Busey and company with learning to play instruments and songs in a matter of days – and the results were highly remarkable. Busey was rightly nominated for Best Actor that year but lost to Jon Voight in the Vietnam War drama Coming Home.

The Buddy Holly Story holds up very well today, although its shoestring budget shows. There is also the issue of mounting a full biography of a man who died at the tender of age of 22. Out, out brief candle. The film surmounts these issues very well, save for the ending shot. An inter-title tells us that Holly, along with Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson died in that fateful plane wreck on February 3, 1959 as icy orchestral music plays. This sends the audience out in a disquieted mood, pondering their own mortality instead of elated by Holly’s timeless music. As a side note, this aviation tragedy is addressed more forthright in the 1987 Valen’s bio pic La Bamba. Additionally, Don McLean’s “American Pie,” with its lyric about “the day the music died” was playing on a car radio as this film’s producers were on their way to pitch a horror film. They switched gears, and this film was the happy result.

In either case, it’s rather disheartening that actor Busey – a difficult man to cast even under the most normal of circumstances, currently toils in straight-to-Redbox-rot such as Lizzie (2012) and Mansion of Blood (2014). This Twilight Time Blu-Ray includes an isolated music track, audio commentary with director Steve Rash and Busey and the film’s original theatrical trailer.

The Buddy Holly Story is a film that can be enjoyed by viewers of all ages. They don’t make them like this anymore, kind of like Buddy Holly himself. What are you waiting for?       

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