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For rock 'n' roll fans, February 3, 1959, has a special significance. It's "the day the music died," because on that date Buddy Holly, one of the pioneers and guiding lights of rock 'n' roll music, was killed in a plane accident in the midwest along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper. The incident robbed the world of a true musical visionary whose constant experimentation in this new music might have had an even greater impact on the recording industry had he lived. But Holly's music had a life of its own and would later serve as inspiration to the Beatles and musicians like Marshall Crenshaw (who would eventually play Buddy Holly in La Bamba, 1987, a dramatization of Ritchie Valens' life).
In The Buddy Holly Story (1978), the legend from Lubbock, Texas, is reassessed in a thoroughly entertaining musical biography that mixes fact and fiction in equal parts, a practice Hollywood is unable to resist despite the potential for distortion and false allegations. Luckily, the film captures Holly's charm and stubborn individuality through Gary Busey's chameleon-like performance in the title role. As the story progresses from Holly's formation of his band, the Crickets, to his departure for a recording career in New York City, it also charts the evolution of some of the musician's most famous tunes - "Peggy Sue," "That'll Be the Day," "Maybe Baby" - all performed by Busey with his on-screen band composed of Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud. Their faithful but inspired covers of Holly's songs gives the film an immediacy that would have been lost if they merely lip-synched to the original recordings.
Historical accuracy, however, is not the film's strong suit, and Holly's family, friends and fans were quick to point out numerous errors when the movie was released. Among the complaints was the depiction of Holly's parents, who were seen as unsupportive of Buddy's music. Just the opposite was true and was verified by his mother who stated, "We were very anxious for him to make a career as a singer. We were his biggest fans. You know, I wrote 'Maybe Baby' for Buddy. I was always trying to help him write and he always said my songs were too serious. So I decided I would write him a silly one. I wrote 'Maybe Baby' and gave it to him and the next thing I knew it was out on record." The Buddy Holly Story also took dramatic liberties with biographical details (the scene in the church where Holly's pastor attacks his music was fabricated - the two men were close friends in real life) and completely omitted Norman Petty, Holly's producer, from the story line. In a Rolling Stone article by Chet Flippo, Petty commented on the movie's final section where Holly is working with a full orchestra: "They forget - or didn't know - that Buddy was initially opposed to recording with strings. I had to talk him into it. In fact, that whole scene in the New York studio with Buddy producing himself and writing charts is all wrong. For one thing, Buddy couldn't read music and for another Dick Jacobs was the producer at the session. That's unfair to Jacobs. I think that everyone in Buddy's life was done an injustice because the movie makes Buddy look like a tyrant, a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not. He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual."
For the actors, however, The Buddy Holly Story was a dream come true. Gary Busey, who was once a drummer with Leon Russell's band, threw himself into the lead role with such intensity that he began to resemble Holly, the result of heavy dieting and the makeup department's influence (horn-rimmed glasses and curled hair). He also got a charge out of performing Holly's music with co-stars Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud. In a Rolling Stone article by Ben Fong-Torres, Busey said, "We'd get together, and say, 'Oh yeah, let's try that.' No rules. It was just like a rock and roll tour, and the more freedom like that, the more chances you get to walk on the line. And in Buddy Holly, I did jump over that line a few times, usually after the music scenes. Each one took me hours, days to wind down, and I went through such depressions when the music was over. The last music we filmed was the Ed Sullivan Show, and Don Stroud...was so upset cause the band was going to be breaking up. That's how much into it we were."
Audiences and critics were into The Buddy Holly Story as well, and typical of the reviews was this assessment by Film Quarterly: "Director Steve Rash and Gary Busey have interpreted the Buddy Holly story with an unpolished beauty that remains faithful both to the spirit of the man and to his music." The film went on to receive three Oscar nominations in 1978. Busey was nominated for Best Actor. He would later say he won the role of the late singer because "they finally realized I have the same-sized teeth." His competition that year was Warren Beatty (Heaven Can Wait), Robert De Niro (The Deer Hunter), Laurence Olivier (The Boys from Brazil), and Jon Voight, who won the Academy Award for Coming Home. The Buddy Holly Story was also nominated for Best Sound and Best Adapted Score.
Producer: Fred Bauer
Director: Steve Rash
Screenplay: Robert Gittler
Production Design: Joel Schiller
Cinematography: Stevan Larner
Costume Design: Michael Butler
Film Editing: David Blewitt
Original Music: Joe Renzetti
Principal Cast: Gary Busey (Buddy Holly), Don Stroud (Jesse), Charles Martin Smith (Ray Bob), Maria Richwine (Maria Elena Holly), Conrad Janis (Ross Turner), William Jordan (Riley), Amy Johnston (Cindy Lou), Dick O'Neill (Sol Gittler).
C-115m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeff Stafford