Quoth Judge Brett Cullum to an anonymous Little Darlin': "Come on, let's go again once more, and revisit this classic rock biography."
I'm gonna tell you how it's gonna be
The Buddy Holly Story was recommended to me on the DVD Verdict discussion boards. I ordered the movie from NetFlix, and was surprised to find in the sleeve a 1978 film that I had almost completely forgotten about. Music star biopics seem to pop up periodically—like Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in Coal Miner's Daughter or Jennifer Lopez as Selena. Usually these are strange affairs full of lip-synched performances that only make you wish you could see the real star who made the songs famous. I was a radio deejay for a time, so I have a strong aversion to anybody tampering with my visions of a real artist. And I have to say that the idea of watching two hours of Gary Busey (Point Break, Carny, and about 98 other films) playing Buddy Holly didn't sound like a great idea to me. Buddy was a short guy with great big glasses from my home state of Texas. Busey seemed too broad and too loud to pull off that trademark nebbish image of Holly (aped so successfully by later artists such as Elvis Costello). Boy—was I wrong.
Legend has it that Busey put together a band and actually toured up and down the Left Coast, playing Buddy Holly songs, before the production began. He convinced the director to let him perform the songs live in the movie, rather than rely on overdubs. The result? Every performance has a raw energy and nerve that you can only get from strapping on a Fender and really playing. Busey may be the ultimate method actor, because few stars would want to take on something like this. But he did it, and it sounds pretty dang cool. Take, for instance, the opening roller-rink sequence. You can feel the crowd spontaneously reacting to the music, because it's really happening right there in front of them. The strength of this movie lies in Busey's crazy-ass commitment to becoming a rock idol, not just playing one on the big screen. This really should have garnered Gary an Oscar, because it's truly a career-defining role. The songs featured in the film include such Holly classics as "Rock Around with Ollie V," "That'll Be the Day," "Words of Love," "Oh Boy," "Peggy Sue," "Rave On," "Maybe Baby," "Not Fade Away," and "True Love Ways." (The movie did win the gold statue for "Best Adapted Score.")
Much has been made of the fact the movie is not historically accurate. It seems that The Crickets (Buddy's backing band) had sold their story (to someone else) already, and the filmmaker was therefore forced to change their real names in this film. He also turned them into composite characters, having only two band members instead of three. Many people thought this was sacrilegious, and it's brought up quite a bit with respect to this project. Paul McCartney even hosted a show called Buddy Holly, which was intended as a response to the inaccuracies of this film. The Beatles themselves took their name as an homage to the Crickets—which should gives you an idea about how much this music influenced them.
And yeah, the critics are right. The script is not the gospel truth about all parts of Buddy's brief career and life. The guitars and drums are all wrong for that time period. Many of the shows are in the wrong locations (most notably the one right before Holly died is in the wrong venue). We see mountains in Lubbock (um…no!). But in the final analysis I can forgive the film's playing fast and loose with the facts, since it got a whole lot of mileage out of its interpretation of the man. It's truthful in spirit, and sometimes that's all you need to make a good film. Band issues aside, the love affair seems pretty close to the real deal. Buddy dated and married Maria Elena Santiago (Maria Richwine, Hamburger: The Motion Picture) whom he met through his record company. Their awkward romance seems painfully real throughout the film; most poignantly when he asks her aunt's permission to court her.
The most dazzling aspect of Buddy's life to me is the way he pioneered the white guy's right to be funky. Let's face it—he's a skinny kid from Texas with Coke bottle glasses, and he ends up as the first white act to play the Apollo Theatre. No small feat there. Buddy Holly only lived twenty-two years, and I would bet a dollar almost everyone on the planet could sing a few bars of at least one of his songs. Singer Don McLean memorably dubbed Holly's death "the day the music died" in his song "American Pie." Holly pioneered the dark, fast beat of rhythm and blues, and let bop become rock and roll.
Given that it was released in 1999, the disc sports a clean widescreen transfer that defies its 1978 origins. Add to that a commentary from Gary Busey and director Steve Rash, which is almost as much fun as the movie itself. They do confront the historical inaccuracies, and reminisce about using a steady cam for the first time. Gary tries to sing a little too, but his voice has changed a bit in 26 years. Rumor has it that you can find the disc at a rock-bottom price in your local bargain bin, or you can easily find it in the used market as well. It's definitely worth a rental to see what many consider one of the greatest rock biopics of all time. It made me want to run out and start a rockabilly band to pay tribute to rock's greatest geek. This is a passionate rendering of a rock legend that certainly deserves to, as Buddy sang, "Not Fade Away."
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Actor Gary Busey and Director Steve Rash
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