Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Before the Music Died

Film: The Buddy Holly Story
Format: DVD from Rockford Public Library on laptop.

Believe it or not, there was a time when Gary Busey wasn’t certifiably (and entertainingly) insane. The Buddy Holly Story is evidence that the man was possessed of a real talent. I wasn’t sure what to expect here beyond hearing the music of Buddy Holly. Honestly, that was kind of enough to get me interested. I’m not a Holly fanboy, but it’s hard to deny that there’s something really infectious about the man’s sound.

We start in Lubbock, Texas where Charles “Buddy” Holley (Gary Busey) and his band, drummer Jesse (Don Stroud) and upright bassist Ray Bob (Charles Martin Smith) are playing a gig at a roller rink that is also being broadcast on local radio. After playing standard slow country songs, the trio breaks into some rock numbers. The reaction is mixed. The kids who are roller skating love it, but the parents react badly. The next day, after a fiery sermon from the local minister about the evils of this new music, Buddy’s parents ask him what he plans to do with his life now that he’s a year out of high school.

Ultimately, the sponsors of the radio show react badly to the music that Buddy and his band are playing, but the sound is certainly compelling to others. The trio takes a trip to Nashville to record, but none of them are happy with the way the sessions go. Their songs have been slowed down, backed by a full country band, and no longer include Jesse’s drums. Rather than give in to these demands, they return to Lubbock. Buddy also refuses to bow to the demands of the radio station’s sponsors to play only country music. However, the station’s owner (William Jordan) tells Buddy that he sent a tape of the band’s last show at the roller rink to a producer in New York.

What happens now is rather interesting. Buddy’s girlfriend Cindy Lou (Amy Johnston) has more or less determined that Buddy is going to quit his music career and join her in college. Instead, he breaks up with her and the trio heads to New York. What they find is that first, one of their songs has been pressed and released, and it’s climbing the charts. Second, they find out that everyone believed that because of the music they play, everyone believed they were black.

The career of Buddy Holly (in truth, his name was misspelled on his contracts) and the Crickets thus takes off. Buddy romances Maria (Maria Richwine), the secretary of record company head Ross Turner (Conrad Janis). Maria tells him that she can’t date him because her aunt, who also works at the record company, refuses to let her date a musician. He takes it upon himself to charm the aunt, and after a single date the pair are married.

Tension crops up between Buddy and his bandmates when they are less keen about staying in New York and start to feel as if they are being overshadowed by Holly. Eventually, they quit the band and go back to Lubbock, leaving Buddy with a pregnant wife and a new phase of his career.

In a very real sense, The Buddy Holly Story is a tragic tale. It’s almost interesting in spite of itself, though. This is essentially a straight biography. In that sense, this doesn’t follow the standard plot of a traditional movie. There isn’t really a central tension. In fact, that central tension more or less comes from the general knowledge that Holly died in the plane crash in Iowa with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. This is a case where the audience knows what is going to happen, so many of the events of the film are tinged with an irony that the real people would not and could not have been aware of.

There’s a lot here that is as good as it can be. Holly’s real band had three members, not two, and the names were different. This happened because the members of the Crickets had already signed away the rights to their story to a different production company, meaning that they couldn’t be included as themselves in this story. There are moments here of attempted drama that don’t pan out with history as well. When the group plays the Apollo in New York, they are essentially told that they are the first white act to play the theater. That was patently untrue. I get why the changes were made, but it is a little sad.

The real surprise here is just how good Busey is. These days, it’s easy to think of him as the wild-eyed maniac who seems a step away from an institution. It’s a solid and sympathetic performance. The Buddy Holly we are presented with here is impossible to dislike. He seems like such a genuinely decent person all the way around, someone who wants to do the right thing, but is also filled with doubts and fears. It also helps that Busey, Stroud, and Smith actually played their instruments and sang—this is really them.

But it’s the music that sells it. It’s hard to believe that there was a time that Buddy Holly’s music was controversial. It’s worth remembering just how good these songs were and still are.

Why to watch The Buddy Holly Story: Have you forgotten how good this music was?
Why not to watch: This is straight biography, so the story structure feels off.


  1. Charles Martin Smith sure pops up in the oddest places. He's had something of an "always the bridesmaid, never the bride" career in Hollywood (which also makes me think of quiet, thoughtful character actors like Bob Balaban).

    Thanks for this review. I didn't realize that Busey was in the main role. I'll have to check this out.

    1. I rather like Charles Martin Smith. He's memorable in a lot of movies that he's in, which is more or less the goal of a character actor. That's especially true in films like American Graffiti and The Untouchables.

      But it's Busey who is the revelation here. Busey keeps the film interesting when, honestly, the story really isn't that interesting.

  2. A long time Buddy Holly fan, I was excited when this movie came out, but was disappointed that there really wasn't much to it, besides the music and Gary Busey's performance.

    1. I agree--there's not a lot there beyond those two things, but those two things were enough to keep me interested for the whole time.