Monday, April 1, 2013


Ever had one of those nights when you’re sound asleep and then you’re not? You toss, you turn, you punch and fluff your pillow. You pull the bed covers up. You kick the bed covers off. You lay there eyes closed. You lay there eyes opened. You turn on the light, and check the clock. It's two a. m. and sleep is a distant dream.
What to do, what to do? Well, I don’t know what you do, but I generally turn on the TV, find something that isn’t too scary or intellectually stimulating and watch it until my eyes close and I can get back to the business of sleeping—hopefully, in a matter of minutes.

I had one of those nights recently, and after what seemed like an eternity of tossing, turning, punching, fluffing and surfing, I landed on the Turner Classic Movie channel, where The Buddy Holly Story was twenty minutes or so into its hour-and-a-half run. 

If you are under the age of fifty, there’s a good chance you never heard of Buddy Holly, or know little-to-nothing about his music.  I can only tell you that he was an original. He didn’t have the looks to be a heart throb like Elvis Presley or other teen idols of the day, but his voice was unique. He was also one of the first rock artists to write, arrange, sing and produce  his own material. 

His career was brief, as was his life. He was just twenty-two when he died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson (a. k. a. "the Big Bopper") and their eighteen-year-old pilot. Singer/songwriter Don McClean would later refer to it as “The day the music died” in 1971’s American Pie.    

Considering the fact that Holly’s time in the spotlight was brief—a mere two years from start to finish, he left behind an impressive list of songs that have turned into classics. His story of an American dream gone wrong, sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. Small wonder that over the years several of the country's biggest studios have attempted to bring more than six Holly-related film projects to the screen. Three made it as far as the production stage.

The film I saw on that sleepless night not so long ago was the last of the three, and the only one to make it into the theaters. The first― A Three-Sided Coin, was written by Jerry Allison, Holly’s bass player. He was part of the singer’s back-up group; a trio of boyhood pals known as “the Crickets". Interestingly enough, Gary Busey was chosen to play Allison in that film. But, without script approval from Holly’s widow, it never saw the light of day.  
The second project, which was green-lighted by 20th Century Fox despite the fact that they had yet to procure the rights to the story, was forced to shut down production just two weeks into filming. 
Why all of these false starts?  Well, according to most sources, Holly’s widow felt that her husband’s story would be best told by a small, independent company, where Holly the man wouldn’t be overshadowed by the star chosen to portray him.

She got her wish when producers Fred Bauer and Ed Cohen, along with director Steve Rash came calling. The trio had produced several well-received music-related productions, and were keen on the Holly project. Their interest, expertise and promise to cast an unknown in the title role won the widow over. Hands were shaken, contracts were signed, and the process of finding that great unknown began.

But finding someone who could not only act but talk, sing, play the guitar and perform like Holly was to say the least, a bit daunting, and the producers realized that there was a good chance they were going to have to go with an actor who could lip-sync to Holly's tracks.
And then came Joyce Selznick, who, as casting director for one of the earlier Holly flicks, had seen, heard and championed a fellow named Gary Busey for the title role. Selznick turned them on to the native Texan, and with rights secured, money procured,and actor lured, success was―hopefully, assured, and the Buddy Holly Story was on its way.
Now, if you’re under the age of forty, there’s a good chance you only know Gary Busey as that lovable but crazy gray-haired guy on TV’s Celebrity Apprentice, this despite the fact that he has appeared in any number of films through the years, including Lethal Weapon and the Streisand/ Kristofferson version of A Star Is Born, and has appeared as himself in various episodes of Two and a Half Men, HBO’s Entourage and Celebrity ReHab with Doctor Drew.
I think the last thing I saw him in on the big screen was in 1992’s The Firm, where he played a burnt out PI who met his Maker while his secretary/girlfriend (Holly Hunter) huddled under his desk where she had been – well, that’s a story for another day.

The Firm aside, my most vivid memory of Gary Busey dates back to his public stance against wearing a helmet while riding a motorcycle, despite the fact that the lack of one had nearly cost him his life. Over the years various health professionals have speculated that the brain damage the actor suffered when his bike hit the asphalt in 1988, caused damage that basically took away his filter mechanism, causing him to “speak and act impulsively.”

While Busey’s antics on Mr. Trump’s reality show may make for good television, it is, at least in my opinion, a waste of the man’s considerable talent. I’d forgotten just how talented he was, until that sleepless night in my not-so-distant past. Even in my sleep-deprived state, I was mesmerized by his performance. When I finally turned the TV off at― gasp―4:00 a.m., I made a mental note to add the film to my NetFlix queue, and watch it again when I wasn’t half way between groggy and slumberland.

I would not be disappointed. 

Given the constraints of the film’s meager budget and Mrs. Holly’s wishes, the film’s cast was made up of less-than-familiar faces. Today, more than two decades after its release, viewers may recognize a few actors, but in 1979, even Gary Busey was a virtual unknown.
Busey fit comfortably into Holly’s shoes. Like Holly, he hailed from Texas, no need to affect an accent. What's more, he was a working musician, singing and playing guitar with the Leon Russell band under the name Teddy Jack Eddie. With some minor acting credits to his credit, and an infectious enthusiasm and energy, the actor/singer/musician was, as they say on TV’s talent competitions, 'the whole package', albeit a bit chunkier.

But not for long. By the time filming began, Busey had dropped thirty pounds from his one-hundred-and-seventy pound frame to more closely resemble the wafer-thin musician.  

Gary Busey was thirty-three when he took on the role that called for him to portray Holly from his nineteenth to twenty-second year, but, unlike Kevin Spacey, who appeared far too old to play Bobby Darin in 2005’s Beyond the Sea, I never even thought to question the age disparity. For me at least, he was Buddy Holly. The words he spoke didn’t sound like something he’d memorized; he owned them, his performance completely natural an unaffected. In short, he looked like Holly, talked like Holly, sang like Holly, and moved like Holly. It really is an incredible performance. 

And the music is incredible.   

Outside of some guitar overdubs by Busey’s friend, Jerry Zaremba, what you see on film is what you get. Aided by Don Stroud as the Cricket’s drummer, and Charlie Martin Smith on stand-up bass, Busey shows us why Holly’s music deserves to be remembered. You’ll be dancing in your seat to songs  like That’ll Be the Day,  It’s So Easy, Heartbeat, Peggy Sue, Every Day, Words of Love, Maybe Baby, Will Not Fade Away, Oh Boy!, It Doesn't Matter Anymore, and True Love Ways ―Holly’s only ballad. Based on the spiritual I Will Get By, it is quite something. I could not get it out of my mind for days.

Considering the fact that the entire film was made for somewhere around two million dollars (a minuscule budget, even in 1967), the producers got a lot of bang for their buck. Yes, they used the same concert venue for all of the various theater shots, altering its appearance with a change of curtains, lighting, and camera angles, and yes, the majority of sets are modest. Then again, so was Holly’s life.

What's more important is the quality of the musical sequences, be they in a studio or performance setting. A lot has been made of the fact that the sound track in 2012's Les Miserables was recorded on camera rather than having the actors lip-sinc to prerecorded tracks, as is the norm in movie musicals. But as good as it is, is was not the first.

As we learn on the Holly DVD’s commentary track, Busey and his fellow musicians sang and played on camera, giving these sequences an energy and realistic turn that sets them apart from other films in that genre. Budget and time restrictions made them feel even more spontaneous, as a tight three-day schedule for all of the concert sequences often precluded rehearsing the numbers before they were filmed.

As a result, they are a far more realistic. Lyrics are flubbed, and unscripted moments are caught on film, as when Busey’s mic chord gets tangled in a piece of equipment during one of the concert sequences. Like any seasoned musician, he keeps on going, making it through without falling down or stressing out.
That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its flaws. There are more than a few over-the-top moments, the worst of which takes place early-on, when a DJ goes a little crazy, playing Holly’s first record for hours on end. The resulting mayhem, as portrayed on screen, has everyone from the station manager to a couple of over-zealous policeman breaking down the studio door to stop him.

If such an event actually did take place (and I have my doubts) it was no doubt resolved with a turn of a key, as opposed to brute force. Farther into the film, shots of an all-black audience in Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater feel staged. But on-stage, where it counts, the action, music, and electricity are real.  

Some of the characters and situations are not. As with most bio pics, a good many liberties were taken in presenting Holly’s story. In this case, previous contractual agreements prevented the producers from using the Cricket’s real names. Time lines were rearranged, three Crickets morphed into two, and other characters were omitted, created or melded together in order to move the plot forward.
Understandably, some of those who knew Holly were more than a bit put out by these changes, but compared to, say, Night and Day, the 1946 film about Cole Porter that totally misrepresented his private life, The Buddy Holly Story is a fair representation of the singer's final years, and is—despite the knowledge that things will end badly, a joy to watch. 
You’ll also find the DVD’s commentary track to be a treasure trove of information. Recorded in 1998, a full twenty years after the film’s release, it features Busey and director Steve Rash chatting about everything from the singer to his family and music, to the way the production came together. Armed with all of this insightful information, you will no doubt want to go back and watch the  film yet again.
The Buddy Holly Story won two Oscars, one for Best Adapted Score, the other, for Best Sound (a triumph given the technology available to them in 1967). But while Busey was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, he lost the award to Jon Voight for his work in Coming Home. That said, he was in good company; other nominees in that category included Robert DeNiro (The Deer Hunter), Warren Beaty (Heaven Can Wait) and Sir Lawrence Olivier (The Boys from Brazil).  

Though we know how the story ends, this is not a sad film. The last frames are spent on stage, where, after wowing the crowd with his music, a buoyant Holly waves ‘good-bye’ before heading off to catch his flight, leaving the viewer with a real sense of what a talent he was, and what a gifted actor Gary Busey is. With any luck he will find his way to another great role, and thrill us all, all over again.


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