Dec. 5—A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the new Jerry Garcia biopic planned by famed film director Martin Scorsese.
Scorsese's yet unnamed movie biography has already cast actor Jonah Hill to portray Garcia.
Since Hill already has two Academy Award nominations, including one for Best Supporting Actor for his role in a previous Scorsese film, "The Wolf of Wall Street," here's hoping he does a worthy job of portraying Garcia, the legendary guitarist who not only fronted the Grateful Dead but also all sorts of offshoots, such as the aptly-named Jerry Garcia Band and the acoustic-bluegrass group Old and in the Way, with famed mandolinist David Grisman.
We'll have to wait and see how Hill's portrayal of Garcia turns out, but the planed biopic got me to thinking about other movie biographies of famed singers and musicians. I stated in the column how film biographies of musical artists seem to fall into one of two categories — those that are very, very good and then all the rest.
I often receive emails regarding columns I've written and the one about the Garcia column prompted a response from a reader who said he had a hard time thinking of many great examples of movie biopics about singers, but he did cite Oliver Stone's 1991 film, "The Doors," with Val Kilmer doing a believable job of portraying Doors vocalist and songwriter Jim Morrison in the film.
He said he'd love any recommendations so I responded with one I thought of off the top of my head, "The Buddy Holly Story."
Featuring Oklahoma's own Gary Busey in the title role, "The Buddy Holly Story" does an admirable job of portraying Holly, the singer and songwriter from Lubbock Texas, who became one f rock 'n' roll's original pioneers, along with Elvis Presley Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and others.
I think The Crickets — the name under which Buddy Holly and his band first performed — must be one of the first self-contained bands in rock 'n' roll history. Holly wrote, sang, played guitar and even produced many of his and the band's hits. Holly and The Crickets are also credited with setting the model for countless rock bands that followed them, with the lineup of two guitars, a bass and drums.
Many of Holly's songs are still well-known today, such as "Peggy Sue," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Rave On," "Raining in My Heart" and "Everyday," to name a few.
"That'll Be the Day" hit #1 on the Billboard's Hot 100 in May 1957 — and also shot to #2 on Billboard's Rhythm and Blues chart. That could explain why Holly and his band — still being called the Crickets — were the first white act to be booked into Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. They were booked by a promoter who thought they were a Black act. How they were received by the discerning audience is one of the key scenes in the film.
I mentioned in the previous column how one of the keys to a successful music biopic is having an actor or actress with the charisma to pull off the role. I also noted It's not enough to resemble the singer or musician being portrayed and it also requires more than acting skills. Just because someone is a skilled actor doesn't mean he or she can convincingly portray a legendary musical artist.
I also noted that biopics of singers musicians are often filled with both laughter and tears, requiring the actor portraying the artist to e believable in both dramatic and comedic and scenes. I also mentioned it can be helpful if the actor portraying the singer also has some chops as a musician.
Busey filled all those rolls in "The Buddy Holly Story." He plays guitar and drums — and in the early 1970s often performed as a comedian and musician on local TV in Tulsa as part of "Mazeppa Popazoidi's Uncanny Film Festival and Camp Meeting."
While the local TV show usually featured old B-movies, the real attraction for many fans were the breaks in the film, when Busey and host Gailard Sartain, along with a few other cast members, performed comedic skits, often improvised. Busey usually played a character he dubbed Teddy Jack Eddie.
In "the Buddy Holly Story," Busey gives a wink to his longtime Oklahoma fans, when, while giving a neighboring kid a guitar lesson, he slips in a reference to Teddy Jack Eddy" when singing Holly's song, "Well All Right."
In the movie,Tulsans Busey and Sartain are reunited when Sartain portrays J.P. Richardson, better knows as The Big Bopper, the singer who died along with Holly, Richie Valens and Roger Peterson when the plane Peterson piloted crashed near Clear Lake, Iowa — which came to be known as "the day the music died," thanks to Don McClean's epic song, "American Pie."
For "The Buddy Holly Story," Busey didn't simply lip-synch to Holly's recordings. Busey sang and played guitar on all of Holly's songs himself, while the actors who portrayed The Crickets, Don Stroud on drums and Charles Martin Smith on bass, also played their own instruments. They also performed the songs live as they were filmed and recorded, in contrast to most movies, which often have singers and musicians pre-record their music prior to filming a scene.
So, yes I do consider Busey's Academy Award-nominated performance as one of the best examples of a successful movie biopic about a singer and musician. I'm not the only one either, At one point the film had an amazing 100% rating from Rotten Tomatoes, based on reviews from movie critics.
During the portion of "The Buddy Holly Story" when the all-white Crickets were mistakenly booked as performers at Harlem's Apollo Theater, the first white act to play the Harlem wins the audience over by playing the raucous "Oh Boy" — one of may favorite Buddy Holly songs. They also played a few more hits, and received even more good will from their audience by playing some of Bo Diddley's songs, a goodwill gesture which some who were there said the Harlem audience appreciated.
Holly and the Crickets had the audience literally dancing in the aisles in the movie — and Little Richard, who was there, said the film gave a pretty accurate portrayal of what happened at the Apollo Theater that night. The Crickets must have been well-received, because they had a six-night engagement and returned to the vaunted venue for a return performance all week long as scheduled.
Speaking of Bo Diddley, he notched several hits using what came to be known as the Bo Diddley beat — a distinctive rhythm shuffle probably best exemplified in Diddley's hit recording "Hey, Bo Diddley."
Holly must have liked the way the audience reacted when he played some of Bo Diddley's hits at the Apollo Theater that night. He soon incorporated some elements of that beat into his own song, "Not Fade Away."
I found it interesting that "Hey! Bo Diddley" and "Not Fade Away" were both recorded in 1957 — the same year that Holly and The Crickets broke through the color barrier at the Apollo Theater.
"Not Fade Away" has lived on. Not only was it an early hit for the Rolling Stones, it's believed to be the most-performed cover song by the Grateful Dead, who played ii hundreds of times, usually with "Goin' Down the Road Feeling Bad" as the medley that ended their regular sets during their marathon concerts.
Today, the surviving members of the Grateful Dead who perform with John Mayer and other musicians as Dead & Company, continue to perform "Not Fade Away" — delivering an extended performance as recently as recently as August 2021.
I don't know, but I have a feeling, that when Jonah Hill finally does hit the movie screen, or streaming format or however the Garcia biopic is released, at some point you will see him onstage performing the classic song — once again ensuring Holly's music will "Not Fade Away."
Contact James Beaty at email@example.com.