Thursday, August 6, 2009

Film Review: THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY (1978, Steve Rash)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 113 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Gary Busey, Charles Martin Smith, Don Stroud, Maria Richwine, Dick O'Neill.
Tag-lines: "Music never felt this good."

There was a time when Gary Busey wasn't completely bonkers, and there was also a time when biopics of musicians didn't have to be emotionally manipulative, needlessly glossy, and ultimately soulless. That time evidently was the late 70's, as, along with John Carpenter's ELVIS, I would place Steve Rash's THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY at the top of the heap. Filmed mostly in one or two takes and with the actors performing the music themselves, the film thusly possesses a sort of kitchen sink realism, an in-the-moment eccentricity, and an overall degree of connectedness that befits the music, the man, and the cultural movement. Busey, a musician himself, shows off his acting chops, his charismatic voice, and his toothy grin in a performance that's as likable as it is nuanced.

(And you have to love that Busey's Oscar nomination for this film ensures that he'll forever be invited to the ceremony despite being something of a persona non grata. No matter what mind-boggling red carpet antics he pulled the year before, Gary'll be there.)

This is pre-motorcycle wreck, pre-coke addiction, pre-'butt-horn' Busey. And yet he's still a littttle bit nutty, saying things like "Boolah boolah" and "I'll change my name to Chihuahua Garbanzo," which clearly strike the seasoned ear as Busey improvisations.

As the Crickets, Charles Martin Smith (Toad in AMERICAN GRAFFITI) and Don Stroud (COOGAN'S BLUFF, JOE KIDD) are excellent, alternating between sweet loyalty and overshadowed frustration. Ultimately, THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY succeeds as a sobering glimpse at the transience of the human condition AND as a feel-good success narrative. (Though, indeed, Buddy's tragic death can hang like a shroud over even the most light-hearted of moments.) The filmmakers choose the perfect point at which to end our story, however, and it carries all the weight it should, yet does not rub our faces in the tragedy, making for a picture which truly resonates beyond the closing credits. Four and a half stars.

-Sean Gill

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