The Buddy Holly Story

The Buddy Holly Story is a 1978 American biographical film which tells the life story of rock musician Buddy Holly. It features an Academy Award-winning musical score, adapted by Joe Renzetti and Oscar-nominated lead performance by Gary Busey. The film also stars Don Stroud, Charles Martin Smith, Conrad Janis, William Jordan, and Maria Richwine, who played Maria Elena Holly.

It was adapted by Robert Gittler from Buddy Holly: His Life and Music, the 1975 biography of Holly by John Goldrosen, and was directed by Steve Rash.


Buddy Holly and his friends, drummer Jesse Charles and bass player Ray Bob Simmons, play in local venues in Lubbock, Texas, as The Crickets. Buddy wants to play rock and roll, but it is frowned upon.

The band’s break comes when it is invited to Nashville, Tennessee, to make a recording, but Buddy’s rock-and-roll vision soon clashes with the producers, who want them to play country music, and he walks out. Eventually, he finds a more flexible producer, Ross Turner, who, after accidentally publishing their demo to public acclaim, very reluctantly allows Buddy and the Crickets to make music the way they want.

Turner’s secretary, Maria Elena Santiago, quickly catches Buddy’s eye. Their budding romance nearly ends before it can begin because her racist aunt initially refuses to let her date him, but Buddy persuades the aunt to change her mind. On their very first date, Maria accepts his marriage proposal and they are soon wed.

Sol Gittler signs up the Crickets sight unseen for the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, assuming from their music that they are a black band. When three white Texans show up instead, he is stunned. He refuses to let them perform, fearing the black audience’s reaction, but Buddy points out that Gittler’s telegram specifies that they only have to be in New York City for a week to be paid $1000.00, so Gittler nervously lets them go on, the first white act to perform at the Apollo. After an uncomfortable start, Buddy’s songs soon win over the audience and the Crickets are a tremendous hit.

After two years of success, Ray Bob and Jesse decide to quit, as they feel overshadowed by Buddy and do not want to relocate to New York City, which Buddy believes is necessary to stay on top. They return to Lubbock with the agreement that they will retain the Crickets name. Buddy is saddened by their departure. While he carries on writing, he initially is afraid to tour without them despite his manager’s emphasis of the importance of touring to chart success. When Maria announces that she is pregnant, Buddy is delighted. She sees that he is frustrated and urges him to tour, which he eventually agrees to.

On February 2, 1959, preparing for a concert at Clear Lake, Iowa, Holly decides to charter a private plane to fly to Moorhead, Minnesota for his next big concert, as the tour bus has broken down. The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens join him on the flight. Meanwhile, the Crickets, feeling nostalgic, appear unexpectedly at Maria’s door, expressing their desire to restart the band. They plan to surprise Buddy at his next tour stop. After playing his final song, “Not Fade Away”, Holly bids the crowd farewell with: “Thank you Clear Lake! C’mon. We love you. We’ll see you next year.” A caption then reveals that Holly, Valens, and the Bopper died in a plane crash that night “…and the rest is Rock ‘n Roll.”


Gary BuseyBuddy Holly
Don StroudJesse Charles
Charles Martin SmithRay Bob Simmons
Conrad JanisRoss Turner
William JordanRiley
Maria RichwineMaría Elena Holly
Amy JohnstonCindy Lou
Dick O’NeillSol Gittler
Fred TravalenaMadman Mancuso
Neva PattersonMrs. Holly
Arch JohnsonMr. Holly
John GoffT. J.
Gloria IrizarryMrs. Santiago
Jody BerryEngineer Sam
Richard KennedyPreacher
Jim BeachWilson
Gailard SartainThe Big Bopper
Albert PopwellEddie Foster
Paul MooneySam Cooke
Freeman KingApollo M.C.
Stymie BeardLuther
Craig WhiteKing Curtis
Jerry ZarembaEddie Cochran

Actor Gilbert Melgar is briefly seen, in an uncredited non-speaking role, playing Ritchie Valens.


The actors did their own singing and played their own instruments, with guitarist Jerry Zaremba overdubbing the guitar parts. Busey, in particular, was noted for recording the soundtrack music live and for losing a considerable amount of weight in order to portray the skinny Holly. According to Busey’s biography, he lost 32 pounds to look more like Holly, who weighed 146 pounds at the time of his death.

The actor’s accurate portrayal was aided by knowledge gained from a previous attempt to film part of the Holly life story, the ill-fated Three-Sided Coin, in which he played Crickets drummer Jerry Allison. The film was cancelled by 20th Century Fox due to pressure from Fred Bauer and his company, who had made deals with the Holly estate.[4] The screenplay of Three-Sided Coin (by Allison and Tom Drake) revealed many personal details about Holly, and Busey picked up more during off-set conversations with Allison.

While the story follows Buddy Holly from age 19 to 22 (1956 to February 1959), Busey was 33 when he played the role. Charles Martin Smith auditioned for the role of Buddy, but since Busey already had been cast, the producers cast Martin to play Ray Bob Simmons because they liked his audition. Simmons and Jesse Charles were character names used in place of Joe B. Mauldin and J.I. Allison, two of the actual Crickets (1956 to early 1958 Cricket Niki Sullivan, performing on 27 of the 32 songs Holly recorded, is not shown).

The incident in which a Buffalo disc jockey locked himself in a studio and repeatedly played the same song over and over was loosely based on real-life stunts orchestrated by disc jockey Tom Clay (and repeated a few years later by Danny Neaverth), who held up Buffalo’s Shelton Square by playing Bill Haley & His Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock” repeatedly from the top of a billboard, and by Joey Reynolds, who locked himself in a studio playing “Sherry” by The Four Seasons for several hours; those incidents, however, had no relation to Buddy Holly or his music.


The film had a special premiere in nine different Texas and Oklahoma cities on May 18, 1978, including Holly’s hometown of Lubbock and Busey’s hometown of Tulsa,[5] before opening in Los Angeles on June 14.[6]


Box office

The film earned $14.3 million on a $1.2 million budget.[3]

Critical response

Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars out of four and praised Busey’s “remarkable performance as Buddy Holly. If you’re a fan of Holly and his music, you’ll be quietly amazed at how completely Busey gets into the character.”[7] Vincent Canby of The New York Times wrote, “There are a lot of actors in ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ — some of them very nice — but the movie is really a one-man show. It’s Gary Busey’s galvanizing solo performance that gives meaning to an otherwise shapeless and bland feature-length film about the American rock-and-roll star who was killed in a plane crash in 1959.”[8] Gene Siskel gave the film four stars out of four and wrote, “In a year in which we are inundated with films featuring rock music, ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ probably will turn out to be the best. That is because of Busey’s galvanizing performance.”[9] Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “The heart and soul and power of ‘The Buddy Holly Story’ is the uncanny, marrow-deep, robust, exhilarating, likable, superlative, overwhelmingly convincing portrayal by Gary Busey … For once there is no lip-synching to someone else’s voice, no feigning with the fingers to somebody else’s strumming. Busey does it all himself, and it is one of those rare and stunning performances in which the person of the actor himself is totally lost to sight in his creation of someone else.”[10] Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote, “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.”[11]

The Buddy Holly Story holds a 100{ae90547d17d4d74b17007ee836a04674fd006933c139011dc78eb03c100070a7} rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 30 reviews, with a weighted average of 7.3/10.[12] The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.[13]

Peggy Sue Gerrow Allison Rackham, to whom the song “Peggy Sue” was written, called the film “typical Hollywood, gobbledygook fantasy”.[14] Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney wasn’t positive about the film either. Being interviewed and involved in the production of director Richard Spence’s documentary ‘The Real Story of Buddy Holly’, McCartney decided after seeing the film to make a more accurate account of what happened. In a Rolling Stone interview, executive producer Ed Cohen, director Steve Rash and producer Freddy Bauer defended inaccuracies in the movie, pointing out the budget of the movie was only two million dollars. “Whatever we put up there on the screen will be the truth”, commented Bauer. “Ask moviegoers who invented the telephone. They’ll tell you that Don Ameche did.” According to Rolling Stone, the three major complaints concerned the portrayal of Holly’s family, the treatment of the Crickets and the omission of Norman Petty, Holly’s producer.[14]


The film won the Academy Award for Best Adaptation Score by Joe Renzetti. Busey was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role, and Tex Rudloff, Joel Fein, Curly Thirlwell and Willie D. Burton for Best Sound.[15]

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