Top critical review
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on 3 April 2009
Buddy Holly is a young Texan rock `n' roll singer with bad eyesight and teeth like the grill of a crashed Buick who finds himself at odds with virtually everyone he comes across in his quest for a new sound. His church publicly denounce him, his parents dismiss his music as `kids' stuff, his first recording session becomes a punch up, his fiancé thinks his music is just a hobby and his band the Crickets are just a couple of `good `ol boys' just out for a good time.
In the midst of all this `encouragement' his boss at the local radio station threatens to fire him - but not before sending a recording to some `hut shut pre-dooser up theyer in Noo Yawk'. Within seconds Holly is catapulted to fame, fortune, marriage and death at twenty two - but not before he starts the ball rolling for the civil rights movement, changes the face of popular music and buys a Cadillac.
On the face of it Steve Rash's 1978 biopic seems to have gone out of its way to be inaccurate. It manages to render events that kinda/sorta happened into almost total fiction. The insult to Eddie Cochran warrants a governmental inquiry, the concept of a live version of That'll be The Day being his first hit single is wishful thinking in the extreme and don't get me started on the omissions! No mention of the 1958 British tour - an event seismic in its impact on pop music forever afterwards - and no mention of his manger and producer Norman Petty - without whom the world may never have heard of Buddy Holly. They don't even get his guitar right - a Telecaster? A Bronco?! Even in the final scene where he does finally yield a Stratocaster - an instrument integral to the Holly legend - it's a rosewood neck job with a large 70's head and with the tremolo arm left on.
For the average viewer this means nothing, but to rock `n' roll aficionados this is the cinematic equivalent of Da Vinci's `The Last Supper' depicted with a family bucket of KFC on the table.
Certainly Holly did change the face of popular music and he did buy a Cadillac (or two) but the racial divide smashing is based on his marriage to the Hispanic Maria Elena Santigo and a highly fictionalised account of his appearances at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem where he wins over an initially hostile and exclusively black audience. Here (and in subsequent stage productions) he is booked on the basis that, due to his sound, they thought he was black - then he `blows Negro minds' with his unique blend of rolling drums and jangly guitar after being warned that he would, at best, be killed by an outraged mob who had never witnessed a red neck `hot footing' their hallowed bandstand.
The reality is that The Crickets were booked - not because they sounded black - but because there was a Negro vocal group also called the Crickets creating said confusion. They did eventually win over a begrudging audience but it took a week long residency and some Bo Diddley numbers to do it.
Some kudos is due as the music is - unlike most musicals - played live and by the actors themselves (with a sneaky second guitar being played off screen - hence cut-aways and long shots during solos). Charles Martin-Smith (Bass) and Don Stroud (Drums) are adequate but everything rests on Gary Busey's singing and guitar playing which, frankly, belongs at chucking out time of a Thai karaoke night. The big final concert at the Clear Lake Auditorium with Coasters saxophonist King Curtis and a full orchestra virtually never happened. The actual show, which was at The Surf Ballroom, was apparently a shoddy affair with standard rock backing (albeit with the brilliant Tommy Allsup on lead guitar and country superstar in the making Waylon Jennings on bass). The stars on that final show ended up having to play drums for each other on account of the hired drummer recovering in hospital from frostbite due to the horrendous travelling conditions.
In all fairness many of the inaccuracies were due to litigation considerations as virtually everyone connected to the subject refused to allow themselves to be portrayed or even have their names used - so it's something of a stroke of genius that The Buddy Holly Story takes those limitations and turns them into something of a virtue - resulting in an enjoyable film which is more of an affectionate tribute to notoriously fanciful 50's `candy coloured' biopics such as the Glenn Miller Story than a faithful rendering of the tragically short life a remarkable pioneer.
The Buddy Holly Story? No. A Buddy Holly Story? Pretty much.