Decades before he became known as a reality-TV madman, Gary Busey was a promising young talent with irrepressible energy, thriving in a broad variety of projects and even scoring an Oscar nomination for his best performance, playing an ill-fated ’50s rock star in The Buddy Holly Story. Directed by first-timer Steve Rash, The Buddy Holly Story is a thoroughly ordinary piece of work that depicts key events during Holly’s ascent from obscurity as a Texas roller-rink performer to international fame as a chart-topping tunesmith. This is awfully clean-cut stuff by rock-movie standards, since Holly’s biggest professional obstacles were ambition and perfectionism, rather than the standard rock-god foibles of substance abuse and womanizing, so the level of drama in the picture never rises particularly high. Still, The Buddy Holly Story is rewarding, largely because of Busey’s impassioned performance.
Stripping his gigantic frame down to slimmer proportions, burying his blonde locks in brown dye, and hiding his eyes behind Holly’s signature Coke-bottle eyeglasses, Busey slips into his character’s skin while still retaining the vivaciousness that makes Busey so interesting. Whether the actor actually captures the real Holly is a question better left to experts, but there’s no question that Busey’s work in this picture is consistently dynamic and naturalistic. Better still, Busey absolutely kills during the musical scenes, since he not only did all of his own singing but also performed the movie’s myriad tunes live during filming—there’s a good reason why most of The Buddy Holly Story’s 113 minutes comprise full performances of classics like “It’s So Easy,” “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” and “True Love Ways.” Whenever Busey is on stage, with hard-working supporting players Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud playing, respectively, Holly’s bass player and drummer, the movie sizzles.
And if some of the surrounding narrative bits fall flat by comparison—for instance, Maria Richwine’s performance as Holly’s wife is amiable but forgettable—the problem is surmountable, since a theme of The Buddy Holly Story is that Holly was a workaholic who felt most alive while creating music. Plus, the movie can’t really do much with the circumstances of Holly’s sudden death in a plane crash at the height of his fame, since it’s hard to make capricious fate seem organic. Nonetheless, Rash’s loving evocation of the ’50s is appealing—all tidy surfaces and simmering youth-culture tension—and the best parts of the movie work just fine. As the kids on American Bandstand used to say, it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.
The Buddy Holly Story: GROOVY