The opening sequence of "The Buddy Holly Story" is set at a roller rink in Lubbock, Texas in 1956. Holly and two friends, a drummer called Jesse and a bass player, Ray Bob, are engaged as a country and western band.
Holly, the guitarist and lead vocalist, begin their set with a Les Paul-Mary Ford hit, "Mockingbird Hill," played in a competent but listless manner that does nothing to distract the skaters from moving around in circles and onlookers from trading gossip. The number is completed and the obviously dissatisfied Holly announces, "Now we're gonna play some rock 'n' roll."
Suddenly the band comes alive and the joint starts jumping. Kids who had been content skating feel an irresistible impluse to dance. Disapproving patrons wince at the noise. Who can visit with that racket going on?
The tempo accelerates with breath-taking speed, and the old roller rink is rocking. Holly's band has liberated its own pent-up vitality and triggered sympathetic reactions in the audience. It's a breakout and a breakthrough.
Opening today at several area theaters, the film is an entertaining chronicle of Holly's brief but productive and influential career as a pioneering rock 'n' roll composer and singer - beginning in Lubbock and ending on the eve of his death in 1959 at the age of 22 in a plane crash near Mason City, Iowa that also cost the lives of two colleagues, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens.
In the course of this account, Busey performs about a dozen Holly standards, including "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Maybe Baby," "Oh Boy," "It's So Easy" and "Words of Love."
One doesn't necessarily have to find Holly's songs enthralling to share in his expressive passion and admire his professional pride and determination. Although the lyrics often sound like barely functional banalities, the best recordings seem to be energized by inventive, arresting instrumentation and by the emotional intensity in Holly's peculiarly reedy, raspy vocalizing Gary Buesy's performance as Holly gives the movie an analogous conviction and distinction. The raw material seldom seems inspired or subtle, but the presentation frequently does.
Frustrated by a Nashville record producer who insists that the group sing at a conventional, droning country-and-western clip, Holly protests, "I have a sound in my head, and it ain't like anything I've heard here." And the movie persuades you that this kid is driven by a unique musical impulse and that he has both the ability and stubbornness necessary to keep faith with his muse.
Holly encounters no insurmountable obstacles to success until Fate simply terminates his career prematurely, transforming him into a pop-music Keats. But what obstacles there are reveal interesting social undercurrents and prejudices. Some elements in his hometown consider Holly's music a threat to social stability. Some elements in the record industry object to what they consider "nigra music," while others mistake the group for black musicians, leading to a delightful sequence where Holly and his group, The Crickets, fulfill an engagement at the Apollo in Harlem. Holly feels compelled to demand more authority over his work than producers are accustomed to grant. The group is treatened by homesickness and personality clashes after locating in New York.
Steve Rash directs the firm in a clean, observant and confidently transparent style - making an impressive debut after several years of TV pop-music specials - and demonstrates a flair for expressing Holly's appeal. Moreover, on a budget of $2 million, Rash has achieved a period illusion that often escapes filmmakers with greater resources.
Both Rash and screenwriter Robert Gittler (who committed suicide on the eve of the film's premiere have resisted overemphatic dramatization, and do not try to contrive a series of implausible crises.
They flirt with monotony in the final reel, largely devoted to domestic scenes celebrating the brief wedded bliss of Holly and his wife Maria Elena, a record company secretary. However, since the filmmakers relied on the cooperation of Holly's widow when preparing a screenplay, their deference is understandable. Unforunately, it almost smothers the exposition in a mood more lulling than the "Mockingbird Hill" mood the band escaped from.
Gary Busey invests the title role with a personal charm so original and an emotional dedication so exhilarating that he seems to lift the material off its somewhat pedestrian feet.
Tall and brawny, Busey dropped 35 pounds to play the slight, wiry Holly - and in the process he seems to have sharpened his techiques and concentrated his energy.
Busey's Texas drawl and crooked grin have been welcome additions to the screen since his first substantial role, Jeff Bridges' kid brother in "The Last American Hero." Slimming down and donning Holly's big-rimmed spectacles, Busey seem more streamlined and eccentric, yet even more amiable.
This small-town boy possesses considerable smarts and a wry sense of humor. There's a precocious sophisticate, a true gentleman, lurking behind the hick facade. When that sophistication manifests itself - for example, in his droll parting remarks to a bubble-headed girlfriend played by Amy Johnston and in his flirtations with his future wife - the amusement is heightened. You don't expect quite such style from someone who looks so unstylish.
Busey shares Texas parentage and musical affinities with Holly. A rock drummer for 15 years, Busey has also played guitar for the last seven. Under the nom de tambour of Teddy Jack Eddy, foisted on him by a friend named Gailaird Sartain, who appears as The Big Bopper in "The Buddy Holly story," Busey has recorded with Leon Russell, Willie Nelson and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Busey recorded the Holly songs live for the movie, almost all of them as concert performances, and they might well disappoint someone comparing the soundtrack album to the original Holly tracks.
But on the screen Busey, Stroud and Smith generate a musical rapport and excitement that seems to transcend the quality of their musical imitations. They exult in the music, and one feels carried away by their exaltation.
At his most riveting, Busey seems to be in the grip of a transporting musical passion. His eyes bulge and his face contorts in ways that suggest something more than artful impressions of another entertainer. Far from being Holly tics consciously inserted, these expressions appear spontaneous. It's as if Busey's immersion in the music were bringing him to the verge of ecstasy or collapse. He looks like he might be having a fit.
It's a moving experience to see an actor engaged this intensely by his work. While he never loses control, he occasionally seems to teeter on the brink. He's got the passion, and it could consume him as easily as it could fulfill him.
Before Nick Nolte exploded from the screen in "Who'll Stop the Rain," Busey's performance looked like the most dynamic of the year. But Busey remains a tower of stretch. The role of Holly seems to have liberated his untapped creative resources, and should place him on the brink of stardom.
As Jesse, the drummer, Don Stroud contributes a supporting performance that looms much larger than the role as written. It's a spare characterization of a disgruntled friend, but Stroud makes his personality powerfully felt. There's more potential drama in his brooding silence and fleeting expressions of professional jealousy than one frequently finds in a whole script.
Fred Travalena also stands out in this astutely cast production as a crazed disc jockey who has gone overboard upon discovering Holly and the Crickets.
"The Buddy Holly Story" isn't calculated to be a big deal. Perhaps that's one reason why you don't feel shortchanged. It's modest but nourishing dramatic fare.