3rd February 2019 marked 60 years since ‘the day the music died’. On a fatally frosty night, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and JP ‘The Big Bopper’ were all killed when their plane crashed just outside Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly was twenty two. It’s one of the most devastating blows pop culture has ever suffered. Nonetheless, Holly’s legacy lived on, underlying the melodies and rhythms that permeated the rich music catalogue of The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones. Despite his age, he’s been deemed ‘the father of rock’, Keith Richards even sighting, “Listen to any new release, Buddy will be in it somewhere. His stuff just works.” To put it simply, he transcends the term, ‘legend’, a status too mere to encapsulate the power of his influence.
The Buddy Holly Story celebrated 40 years last year, it’s warm resonance enduring just as Roger Ebert predicted it would back in 1978: ‘this is one rock and roll movie with a chance of being remembered, one with something to say and the style and energy to say it well’. It documents Holly’s career, starting with his ambition to escape small-town Lubbock in 1956 and ultimately culminating with his final concert on the Winter Dance Party tour in 1959. From playing a dingy local roller-rink to purchasing a silver Cadillac with cash, we watch him soar.
However, it’s not an easy climb, as we see Buddy and the Crickets face multiple obstacles along the way, often battling for creative control against ignorant record business top dogs. He also faces criticism from the pastor of his home town, who laughably deems Buddy’s ‘jungle music’ to be a ‘threat to society’. Hence, at first Buddy is a true outsider, this being exemplified in the previously mentioned roller rink sequence. Initially, we see him and his band on the side-lines, serving as background ambience for the whizzing kids that pass them by. However, as soon as Buddy kicks in with ‘That’ll be the day’, he’s soon at the centre of a bopping tornado of twirlers; young teens hungry for something new. This is the first instance in which we see Buddy’s instinct prove right, his confidence in his artistic impulses always managing to override the persistence of greedy music execs, stating “now if I can’t be moved, how are they (the audience) gonna be moved?”. A true innovator, we see his creativity shatter all previous perceptions, for example, being the first artist to put strings on a rock and roll track, ‘Raining in my heart’.
As well as breaking musical boundaries, we also see Buddy challenge racism in the South by being the first white act to play Harlem’s famous Apollo Theatre. Playing alongside the likes of Sam Cooke and King Curtis, Buddy Holly and the Crickets triumph, a party ensuing as the hall becomes electrified with dance and applause. The poignancy of this scene is effective because the boldness of the event is powerfully understated. This is aided by the fact Buddy doesn’t proclaim to be a hero for doing so, he simply is and nothing needs to be said. Furthermore, this scene also serves as one of the many brilliant music segments depicted in the film.
Throughout, The Buddy Holly Story is suffused with incredible gig sequences, bursts of spit-fire energy that are so captivating in their immediacy that they could almost pass as documentary footage. All the music is played live by the actors, implementing a rawness and tangibility that remains uncontested by any other music biopic. As there is very limited footage of the real Buddy Holly and the Crickets, their performances, particularly Gary Busey’s, serve as a gift. More must be said for Busey’s outstanding portrayal of Holly, as it moves far beyond impersonation or mimicry. He filters and refines the warm, charming persona Holly emitted through his music, imbued with an undeterred resilience, compelled by his need to create. Although Busey has gone off the rails somewhat in recent years, his performance as Holly, which earned him an Oscar nomination for Leading Actor, will undoubtedly be the crowning jewel of his career.
Another element that makes The Buddy Holly Story brilliant is the love between Buddy and his wife, Maria, arguably serving as the film’s heart. The chemistry between Busey and Maria Richwine is truly sweet and romantic, there being a lovely moment when Buddy is recording a take of ‘Words of Love’ and Maria quietly walks into the studio. He grows tongue-tied, a bashful grin on his face, unable to continue. The rawness of the moment is so well acted by Busey it’s hard to tell if this was improvised or not. Hence, the depiction of their relationship makes the performance of ‘True Love Ways’ in the final scene all the more heart-breaking and moving.
Throughout the film we’re given insight into profound moments, such as the song ‘Peggy Sue’, then known as ‘Cindy Lu’, being written in the back of a car. As well as this, we also bear witness to the birth of the band name ‘The Crickets’, an actual cricket interrupting an early recording session in Buddy’s garage. It takes them by surprise, just as they’d later take the world. Although perhaps tinged with artistic licence, they’re wonderfully downplayed moments that capture the momentous steps in Buddy’s career without being intimidated by the significance of such a journey. Furthermore, The Buddy Holly Story is a beautifully understated gem, choosing to tell the story how it was rather than swallowing itself up in the pressure of paying tribute to an icon. Thus, it makes the experience of watching the film all the more empathetic and engrossing. Bejewelled with inspired performances, humour, melancholy and fantastic music, The Buddy Holly Story is unmissable, intoxicating in its ability to make you sing along and bring an artist back to life.
by Angel Lloyd
Angel Lloyd graduated from University of York in 2018 with a degree in Theatre: Writing, Directing and Performance. Admittedly always felt like a traitor as film stole my heart long ago. Wish and hope to become a screenwriter/playwright. Graduated from BFI Scriptwriting Academy in 2015 and Northern Stars Documentary Academy in 2014. Much love and adoration for Carrie Fisher, Julie Taymor and Andrea Arnold. Soft spot for Baz Luhrmann glamour and Tim Burton wackiness. Favourite films include Withnail and I, Edward Scissorhands, Nowhere Boy and Moulin Rouge.