Death does amazing things for a performer’s reputation. Had Gary Busey gone by the wayside after his swaggering, confident performance as bespectacled ’50s hiccupping proto-nerd and Elvis Costello inspiration Buddy Holly, and before all the drugs, motorcycles, and religious awakenings, who knows how impressive his legend might have become? Sure, Jennifer Lopez was the bomb in “Selena,” but this is the all time greatest portrayal of a dead Rock star.
“The Buddy Holly Story” plays a little hard and fast with the truth, but it makes for a great myth, and most importantly gets the music absolutely right. Although Busey would have dwarfed the real Holly in size, the actors all play their own instruments and the vocal similarity between the two Lubbock boys is eerie.
Buddy Holly was the geek’s rock star. He wore big black horned rim glasses, had a silly perm, and a goofy smile. He also had the audacity to threaten the subject of his first hit “That’ll Be the Day” that, “If we ever part I’ll leave you.” Holly died in a tragic plane crash at the age of twenty two, but had by that time amassed a huge catalog of classic songs with styles ranging from the pure Rockabilly of “Rave On,” to the Bo Diddly beat of “Not Fade Away,” to the lump in the throat romance of “True Love Ways”. The Beatles took their name from a variant of Holly’s Crickets and super fan Paul McCartney owns every piece of music he ever recorded.
Rash’s film has great fun with the mistaken perception that Holly and the Crickets were black, especially in the retelling of his breaking the color barrier at the previous all Black Apollo in Harlem. “Well, we weren’t expecting you all either.” Although it may overstate Holly’s command of the studio at the expense of real life collaborator Norman Petty, it probably doesn’t do so by much. There is a joyful recreation of Holly’s overdubbing techniques and a wonderful amused reaction by Busey in response to a studio violinist’s claim that Holly’s song “Raining in My Heart” has striking similarities to Beethovan’s techniques. Try to forget for a moment that Holly’s record label is run by Conrad Janis of “Mork and Mindy” fame, and enjoy the performances.
Aside from Holly’s career, the film chronicles the singer’s whirlwind romance with Maria Elena Santiago, to whom he is said to have proposed to on their first date. Busey pulls off an awkward grace and humor in a wonderful scene where the singer asks Maria’s Aunt for courting permission as his alter ego, Charles Hardin.
Accurate portrayals of ’50s Rockers as diverse as Sam Cooke and Eddie Cochran make the picture a joyous experience for true connoisseurs of the era. Until they get that epic version of The Big Bopper’s life and career off the table, this is still the best Rock and Roll biography ever filmed.
[ Songs Include: 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. ]