40 Years Ago: ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ Sets the Bar for Music Biopics
These days, music biopics are nearly as commonplace on the big screen as summer action flicks. That was hardly the case four decades ago when Gary Busey delivered a career-defining role as the titular subject of The Buddy Holly Story, which was released May 18, 1978.
The path to get to the role wasn’t an easy one for Busey, who was previously attached to a project titled Not Fade Away where he played Jerry Allison, the drummer for Holly’s band the Crickets. It was to be marketed as a fictional tale set in 1957 and based on a period of one month on the road during the “black tour,” with Holly's trio the only white act on a package tour. Filming began in September 1975, but when it was just one-third completed, the studio shut it down due to concerns about the controversial theme of race relations. Not to mention, there was opposition from Holly’s family and widow, Maria Elena.
According to Busey, while the casting directory of Not Fade Away originally wanted him to play Holly, the producer vetoed it, saying the actor was too heavy to portray the lithe singer. Having bulked up for a role as a surfer in the John Milius-directed Big Wednesday, Busey quickly dropped the weight and muscle “more or less overnight.” The shocking physical transformation was just one example of the actor’s dedication to the role.
"Once I put on those big horn-rimmed glasses of Buddy's, I couldn't take them off until we'd finished shooting, but that kind of thing doesn't seem obsessive when you're acting,” he once said.
Along with fellow actors Don Stroud on drums and Charles Martin Smith on bass as the members of the Crickets, Busey performed all the songs. To prepare for the role, he also stayed with Holly’s parents in Lubbock, Texas.
"At first I felt terrible," Busey said, "like the most total stranger who ever lived. But they accepted me so completely that in a while I thought I belonged in their home. It was as if I was so close to Buddy as they were.”
The Buddy Holly Story focuses on the final three years of the rock 'n' roll pioneer’s life -- from 1956 until his tragic death in early February 1959 when a plane crash in Iowa took his life, along with those of Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper as well, extinguishing the careers of three of the brightest lights in the burgeoning genre.
At the time of the movie’s release, Holly was on his way to becoming merely a footnote in music history, forgotten by the general population. The 1975 biography the film was based on, Buddy Holly: His Life and Music by John Goldrosen, was long out-of-print. The record label MCA had let the singer’s musical output fall by the wayside, though the U.K. arm of the company had been paying it more attention as a rock 'n' roll revival had begun in England and fans began to discover Holly. The Buddy Holly Story was a smash success, garnering rave reviews and drawing in a whole new audience for the music.
“The good part is, a lot of kids saw it and got interested in music and went back and found old Buddy Holly and the Crickets records,” Allison said. “It renewed the music there for a while.”
Giving a much-deserved boost in profile and focus on Holly’s catalog was one of the only positives critics had of the film. Producers claimed they had taken dramatic license with the singer’s story, but many close to him cried foul. Allison, who was left out by name in the story, as were all who had been Crickets, instead becoming composite characters called Jesse Charles and Ray Bob Simmons.
“The only thing I saw about it that was real was they spelled Buddy's name right,” Allison said. “They called me ‘Jesse’ and they called Joe B. ‘Ray Bob.’ They had mountains in Lubbock, Texas. I thought it was a horrible movie. I didn't see anything that was correct. I imagine it was made up. It's kind of sad for us.”
Also erased from The Buddy Holly Story was Norman Petty, the producer who was also considered by many to be Holly’s mentor. He too took issue with the movie, and in particular the depiction of Holly. "I think that everyone in Buddy's life was done an injustice because the movie makes Buddy look like a tyrant, a personal and musical tyrant, which he was not,” Petty said. “He was very definite about his musical ideas but he was also a very warm, nice, human individual. People like Jerry Allison were very important to Buddy's life, musically and personally."
The idea to revive Goldrosen’s book, a typical tie-in for films – especially in the '70s – met a roadblock from the author, who wanted to distance himself from the project by blocking publication after reading the script.
Even Holly’s parents, who went on record saying how much they enjoyed the movie at first, would go on to sue the film’s producers the following year, claiming their relationship with their son had been inaccurately interpreted on the screen. “It just didn't seem to be the story of Buddy's life, not to anybody who knew him," Holly’s mother Ella said.
The sharp criticisms didn’t damper the mainstream appeal of The Buddy Holly Story. Busey received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Jon Voight, who played a Vietnam veteran in the drama Coming Home), and the film won an Oscar for Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score.