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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.