The Buddy Holly Story Review
The 1950’s is always portrayed as a great time in America, so much so that you wish you’d been around then. Advertising was big business, they had many memorable TV shows and also some tremendous music. This was the era of Elvis Presley, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens and Buddy Holly. Their songs have passed the test of time and still live on 60 years later.
‘The Buddy Holly Story’ now released on UK Region Free Blu-ray takes us back to the roots of Buddy Holly & the Crickets. Released back in 1978, the movie was a low budget affair – made for $1 million – yet it went on to win an Oscar for Best Original Score adaptation and its star, Gary Busey, was nominated for a Best Actor statuette. One of the great things about this movie is that the actors playing Buddy Holly & the Crickets (Gary Busey, Don Stroud & Charles Martin Smith) actually do their own singing and play the instruments. Unlike many movie musicals, there’s no dubbing here and the cast do an excellent job performing numbers like ‘Every Day’, ‘That’ll be the Day’, ‘Peggy Sue’, ‘Maybe Baby’ and the beautiful ballad ‘True Love Ways’ among many others.
The movie opens at a Roller Rink as we witness ‘The Buddy Holly Hay Ride’ and the group play while roller skating goes on around them. This scene was shot and recorded live, so the actors were astonished when the Extras applauded enthusiastically – and it shows on their faces. The group play “bop music for boppers” as this was set before anyone had coined the title ‘RocknRoll’. The film succeeds in creating a real period feel by displaying the fashions, the cars and the attitudes of the people of Lubbock, Texas. This was a time when ‘bop’ music was frowned upon by the good townsfolk, causing them to usher their children away when the group play ‘That’ll be the Day’. The local radio station that broadcasts the Buddy Holly Hayride is beset with calls demanding that the music be stopped. Even in Church on Sunday, the preacher warns his congregation of the music of the Devil as Buddy Holly sits in their midst. The local Radio Station DJ thinks that some of the music is worth recording and he sends the tape to a friend in the music publishing business. In a great exposition of Chaos Theory, Coral Records A&R man releases the track by ‘accident’ and a New York based radio DJ locks himself in the sound booth to play it non-stop on air. The embarrassed but happy music publisher then ‘fast tracks’ Buddy Holly & the Crickets into a recording contract with Holly holding out until they agree to let him produce his own material. Buddy Holly then became the first artist in history to write, produce and perform his own songs.
The movie also chronicles Holly’s pursuit of Maria Elena Santiago, who was to become his wife, including his need to obtain her Aunt’s permission to court her as she was Puerto Rican. As her Aunt doesn’t have a high opinion of performers, Holly pretends to be an executive in the music business in order to charm her into allowing him to date her niece. This, in itself, was a form of prejudice but the United States policy of black/white segregation is tested when Buddy Holly & the Crickets are booked by an agent- sight unseen to play in front of a black audience at the Harlem Apollo. After a stunned silence when the curtains drew back, the universal appeal and great sense of rhythm of the RocknRoll music ensure that their appearance is a great success. Later when our heroes check into a blacks only hotel, they have to pose as the entourage of headlining act Sam Cooke to gain entry.
Gary Busey turns in a first rate performance as the somewhat intense Holly and he punches out the now familiar musical numbers with great conviction. Not conventionally good looking, he makes a very convincing boy from a small town in Texas who hits the big time. Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud support him believably as ‘The Crickets’ and in moments of tension we see the fairly traditional falling out of the band. It should be noted that in real life there were three members of ‘The Crickets’ but some poetic licence has been taken here to allow the movie to be more focussed on just the two characters. One suspects that budget may have had something to do with it as well. The two characters had their names changed as the original band members had signed away their rights to the name of ‘The Crickets’ to MGM who had previously attempted to mount a production about the life of Holly. Much is made of the fact that The Beatles were great fans of the Crickets and this is said to have influenced their choice of a name for the Fab Four.
Directed by Steve Rash, the movie has all the look of a low budget piece of film making as the crew used were young and inexperienced. This can be seen in the lighting of several interiors with some harsh shadows as well as some rather ‘iffy’ camerawork such as the very opening shot where the camera wobbles before tilting down onto the Roller Rink. The stage performances have flaring white jackets as they are hit by the spotlight and while it could be argued that this was a ‘look’ that was required by the director it could also be seen as the work of a lighting cameraman who has yet to earn his wings.
In the final musical number set, Busey really lives the part and this section is a true tour de force as it’s like watching the real Buddy Holly on stage. The poignancy of the last shot and freeze frame genuinely brings home the realisation of what a terrible loss was suffered by the world when, in one night, it lost the vibrancy of not only Buddy Holly, but also the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens as their small plane crashed on its way to another gig. This scene is handled well by director Rash as he allows the audience to thoroughly enjoy themselves before freezing their smiles on their lips. It’s an ending that I’ve remembered ever since I first saw it back in 1978 and I can recall the silence in the Cinema afterwards. This movie may well have been produced on a shoestring, but it is so memorable. If you haven’t seen it and like the RocknRoll era, then this one is for you.