Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Buddy Holly Story (1978)

Director: Steve Rash                                   Writer: Robert Gittler
Film Score: Joe Renzetti                              Cinematography: Stevan Larner
Starring: Gary Busey, Charles Martin Smith, Don Stroud and Maria Richwine

For the life of me, I can’t figure out how The Buddy Holly Story makes it on to a list of B-Movies. This is one of the great rock ‘n’ roll movies of all time, made about one of the greatest originators of rock music. It has a brilliant cast, great direction, wonderful music, everything you want in a must-see film. The only thing I can come up with is that art has imitated life and rock ‘n’ roll movies, like the music that it documents, is still suffering from prejudice that keep them second class cinematic citizens and causing reactionary films like Paul McCartney’s The Real Buddy Holly Story. It’s too bad because, in purely cinematic terms, this is one of the great films of all time and should be on anyone’s A List.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: great cinema does not need to be historically accurate. That’s what we have Ken Burns for. This film does exactly what I’ve been saying for a long time that more filmmakers should be doing, taking the original material and reimagining it to make a great film. First, you have John Goldrosen’s excellent biography of Holly. Then you have Alan Swyer who took that material and reorganized for more dramatic impact, finally handing it off to screenwriter Robert Gittler to provide dialogue and vision. Sure, it’s not exactly what Holly’s life was like, but that’s not the point. It takes that life as raw material and makes great cinema from it.

The film begins, perfectly, in the roller rink where Holly played locally in Lubbock, Texas. The kids, of course, love the new music, but that scene is juxtaposed with the next, in church the following morning with the preacher condemning the music. It’s the perfect shorthand to show the controversy the new music provoked. Does it matter that it didn’t really happen that way? I would say no. The elements are the same, the fact that the details are different is unimportant when those elements are there to serve the film. The story goes on to show Holly’s disastrous attempt at recording in Nashville, his breakout period on a national label, then adding strings and poising himself for a transcendent career before his tragic death. Being a slave to the details would only lessen the impact of a film about a life with tremendous impact. Thankfully, Steve Rash did the right thing.

Gary Busey, for all of his foibles and the joke his life and career have become, is perfect as Buddy Holley. In fact, like a lot of films on musicians, he is perhaps more animated than the original, more excited about the music he was pioneering than the man he was portraying. Would we want it any other way? I would answer a resounding no. The rest of the cast is equally appropriate, the wild and uncontrolled drummer Don Stroud, and the bassist that is a combination of the original and the rhythm guitarist in Charles Martin Smith. Newcomer Maria Richwine is also a great choice as Holly’s wife. Even the character parts are well cast and lend an overall polish to the production.

The B List review of the film by David Ansen suffers tremendously from being written in 1978. It’s tremendously difficult to assess the impact and influence of a film at the time of release. To his credit, he does understand the importance of the film as the first to seriously attempt a rock biography, and even further back as the first non-sentimental film to deal with famous musicians. He also nails Gary Busey’s importance to the success of the picture. What he doesn’t get, and really can’t from his limited perspective, is that this is decidedly not a “lower-case movie,” as he calls it. This film was profoundly influential, the progenitor of films as diverse as La Bamba and Coal Miner’s Daughter right on up to Ray. The Buddy Holly story is not just a great biopic, but the most influential biopic in film history.


  1. Richard Kennedy is great as the preacher who warns his congregation about "the jungle rhythm" Buddy Holly plays. Gailard Sartain didn't do much for me as The Big Bopper.

  2. Junkie, thanks for writing. Richard Kennedy was good, reminded me of John Lithgow's role as the bible thumper in Footloose and again in Kinsey. What I love best, however, is Busey's response to the question at home, when he asks his parents how can it be jungle music if he's writing it. Great comeback. And I totally agree with you about Gailard Sartain. I much preferred Stephen Lee in La Bamba. Which reminds me, Gilbert Melgar is listed as playing Ritchie Valens in The Buddy Holly Story, but I don't ever remember seeing him on the final tour. Do you remember seeing him?