The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

3 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

It was described by Don McLean as “the day that rock and roll died”—February 3, 1959; the day in which musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson all died tragically in a plane crash. They were each music legends in their time.

I suppose if movies were made about these three talented stars, the best way to start would be to tell the story of how in three short years, Buddy Holly and the Crickets broke new ground in music and shot to national stardom. That story is told in the wonderfully told biopic (the aptly named) “The Buddy Holly Story.”

It stars Gary Busey in an electrifying performance as Buddy Holly and it begins as he and his two best friends and bandmates (played by Don Stroud and “American Graffiti’s” Charles Martin Smith) are performing at a skating rink in Lubbock, Texas. They play the traditional country music, which doesn’t sound very exciting to Buddy. And he knows that it doesn’t sound very exciting to the youths at the rink either. So he tells his friends to take it up a notch; bring their music to a bop beat. Everyone at the rink is into it. The radio show they’re performing for is against it and so is the local minister.

Buddy Holly and the Crickets have their way of making music by combining country music and rhythm & blues. The band has a shot at a recording, but that doesn’t go well since the producers just want them to go with the usual stuff and Buddy wants things his own way. One even utters, “He doesn’t like Elvis.” Buddy responds, “I like Elvis fine. But I’m Buddy Holly.” But as a big city radio station plays the band’s demo tape, one thing leads another.

The movie follows the important details of Buddy’s life. We get his beginnings in Lubbock, we meet his snobby girlfriend (soon to be ex-girlfriend), we see the constant arguments that go with Buddy’s music style and what others want him to perform, then comes his early hits, his performances, his marriage, and his final appearance on stage with the other two musicians, Ritchie Valens and Big Bopper. Maybe the movie altered some things or left out some other details, as some rock historians would point out, but the feel of the movie is absolutely right.

There’s a real energy in the performing scenes. The main reason is probably because they were all performed live, not post-dubbing. No moment seems flat or unsuccessful in these scenes. Gary Busey tops off his excellent performance by performing all the songs himself and matching his tone and energy to exact Buddy Holly’s. Busey really gets into his character—I didn’t feel like I was watching Gary Busey performing “Peggy Sue,” “It’s So Easy,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy!” and the rest; I felt like I was watching Buddy Holly.

Was there anything I didn’t like about “The Buddy Holly Story?” Well…the ending. It ends right after the final performance with Valens and Bopper with a freeze-frame, with dead silence and a pop-up text that states what happened afterward. The credits scroll up while zooming on Buddy’s face. I’m aware that Buddy died after that concert, but the way of explaining it right then and there is just sporadic. It’s just terrible. Younger viewers who watch this are going to be devastated because this movie has such a light, energetic, and inspirational feel to it that is thrown right out the window just as it ends. But for the most part, “The Buddy Holly Story” is a rich, wonderful story of how this small-town kid and his friends made it to the top in music. Add the remarkable performance by Gary Busey and the undoubted energy of the concert scenes and you have a special movie about rock n roll.

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