Thursday, September 6, 2012

CHARLES THE CRICKET: "The Buddy Holly Story" (1978)

A few entries ago, I mentioned that I thought it was possible Charles Martin Smith might have been trying to redefine himself around this point in his career. First, there was dropping "Charlie" as his credited first name and switching to Charles. And now with this entry's film, "The Buddy Holly Story" (1978), there's the introduction of another facet of his talents: musician. From what I'd read in interviews, Charles had been singing and playing with friends for several years already, but here was the first time (as far as I know) where he was able to demonstrate his music skills in one of his performances. Originally, CMS tried out for the part of Buddy Holly himself. Pretty ambitious, considering Holly was 6 feet tall and Smith is 5' 5". Still, his energy and enthusiasm was enough to snag him a role as one of Buddy's bandmates, singing backup and playing bass along with "The Streets of San Francisco" co-star Don Stroud on drums. I am just gonna come out and say it right now: I love this "rockstar" phase of Charles Martin Smith's career... a lot! And even if this really is Gary Busey's movie (whose incredible performance earned him an oscar nom), Charles definitely has his moments to shine and show his stuff too.

The films begins with an amazing opening sequence which starts with an impressively extended steadicam shot: Without an edit, the camera moves from the neon lights atop a Lubbock TX roller rink circa 1956, down to the cars parked in front, follows the eager teenagers walking through the entrance, glides among the various folks skating around inside before stopping at three young men on the main stage. Buddy (Busey) is setting up to perform for a live radio simulcast with his bandmates: Jesse (Stroud) and Ray Bob (CMS). Their first tune is a mellow one, a gentle cover of "Mockin' Bird Hill", which seems to please all ages in attendance.

But the older folks start covering their ears and running for the door when Holly switches to a song for the "boppers": "Rock Around with Ollie Vee". This gets all the kids excited and whipped up into a frenzy of enthusiastic dancing, except for a few unlucky teens dragged out the door by angry parents wanting to shield their children from this horrible devil music. All three of these guys sound amazing, and what's really cool is that they all performed live for the film (no lip synching or mimed instrument playing!). They bring an undeniable energy to the music, all of them really lighting up that stage. Of course, I cannot take my eyes off Charles singing back up and plucking away on his stand-up bass. Wow, he's really great! Oh, I am SO in love with rock 'n' rollin' Charles! I would be such a devoted groupie if I was there...

The extras at the filmshoot actually get caught up in the awesomeness of the band's spot-on performance, and when they loudly applaud and cheer at the end of the number, their response is genuine. The three actors on the stage totally lose themselves for a minute and start laughing in surprise. Charles in particular is really adorable in this moment, as he chuckles and shakes his head in disbelief while giving a super-cute "aw-shucks" smile. I love it!

The next number is the real showstopper: "That'll Be The Day." The kids get even more carried away as Busey, Stroud and Smith give it their all. Wow! I can see why the film won an Oscar for Best Adapted Score. Bravo, gentleman! Meanwhile, the radio DJ at the station broadcasting the performance has recorded the last song, and starts to share it with other people. This leads to an offer to record an album in Nashville. Woo hoo!

Buddy, Jesse, and Ray Bob pile into their car and drive all the way to Tennessee. There's a real nice scene of the three of them together on the trip, which gives me the sight of Charles in a wifebeater. Yay! Buddy's in the backseat playing around with a song he's working on. It's an early version of "Peggy Sue", but using the name "Cindy Lou" instead. The other two tap on the steering wheel and dashboard to the rhythm, the song slowly taking shape.

Unfortunately, the Nashville sessions are a disaster. They're supposed to be recording "That'll Be The Day" in this scene, but it's been transformed into a lame countrified version. The record producers have imposed their own sound on the Buddy Holly songs, which doesn't sit too well with the band. I have a moment to admire the tight pants Charles is wearing in the scene, and he's standing in profile showing off the nice roundness of his fine behind. Mmmm-hmmm. I'm snapped out of my admiration when a fight nearly breaks out in the studio between the band and the record producers, who have not surprisingly revealed some racist attitudes. Buddy and his mates storm out the door and head back home to Lubbock.

So it's back to the garage to try and record the music the way they want to. In this scene, they're working on the classic "Everyday". In it's early stages, the song sounds pretty good, but it's missing it's trademark glockenspiel sound (played on a keyboard instrument called a celeste... which I'd never heard of until I was writing this up). In between takes, Buddy and Jesse keep hearing a high-pitched sound coming from somewhere inside their makeshift studio. Ray Bob doesn't hear anything, but the other two keep insisting. Finally, they zero in on the source: a cricket tucked away in the feathers they packed against the wall for soundproofing.

Buddy's mom rushes in and says there's someone calling on the phone from someplace in New York. As he heads out to take the call, Buddy tells Ray Bob to snag a glockenspiel or a xylophone to add to the song (there you go). Oh, and don't kill the cricket cuz that's bad luck. Jesse and Ray Bob start reaching under the chickenwire holding the feathers in place against the wall. As Charles hops up on a box I take notice of something that somehow I never really paid much attention to in the movies and TV shows I have watched so far: the fact that CMS is a guy who's on the shorter side height-wise. Don Stroud measures 6' 2", making the contrast when standing next to CMS's 5' 5" pretty noticeable. This is not a complaint about Charlie's stature, by the way. Short guys are sexy in my book (at least this one is).

Buddy's on the phone with a radio DJ in Buffalo NY who has locked himself inside the DJ booth and been playing an unauthorized record of the "That'll Be The Day" recording for 14 hours straight. This "Madman" Mancuso guy seems to have taken some speed to get him through the self-imposed extra long DJ shift, as he seriously spazzes and bugs his eyes out while talking a mile a minute to Buddy on the phone. How do you get that wild sound, he asks the rocker, who gives a rundown of the 3 man line-up "with a cricket on the end of it." The DJ loves that and says they should call themselves Buddy Holly and the Crickets, but has to end the call as police are breaking down the door to put an end to his manic takeover of the airwaves. We come back to the other two, still trying to grab the annoying insect they'll now be named after. No such luck, as it keeps moving out of their reach.

But something that is in reach is a recording contract. The trio head to New York to talk to the record label that sort-of accidentally released the "That'll Be The Day" single: Coral Records. The cute receptionist (Maria Richwine) seems surprised by their appearance at the office, and there's a little bit of confusion when label head Ross Turner (a pre-"Mork & Mindy" Conrad Janis) introduces himself. Apparently,  the executives were expecting The Crickets to be a "negro group". Oops, oh well. Never mind all that, it's time to talk turkey. They are quickly ushered into his office for some contract negotiations.

Things sound good at first when it's just talk about dollar amounts, but as soon as Turner mentions the fact that the label producers will be working on the songs in the studio, Buddy and the boys start to lose their enthusiasm. It reminds them of their trouble in the Nashville studio. "It was awful, and I'm not ever gonna do that again," Buddy states emphatically, and he insists that he be the producer instead. When Turner balks at the demand, stating that no recording artist is ever their own producer, Buddy and company get up to leave, threatening to go to a competing label like RCA instead.

On his way out, Buddy takes a moment to flirt with the pretty receptionist, Maria Elena, who seems to have really caught his eye. Turner interrupts their moment with more pleading, but Buddy won't budge. Fine, Turner gives in. Stay in New York and make music your way, the band is told. Woo hoo! Time to make some records and get famous! This leads to a performance booking at Harlem's famous Apollo Theater, once again under the mistaken assumption the band is black. They're almost blocked from actually performing when the mistake is discovered, but reluctantly they are allowed to go on as planned.

OK, it's the night of the show, which the film claims would be the first time a white act played at The Apollo (in truth, not really, more like one of the first). Here we get another of those great long steadycam sequences, with an uninterrupted shot following the band from the dressing room, down hallways and backstairs, over to the edge of the stage they are moments away from performing on. Charles leads the procession in this scene, the camera holding on the mixture of nervousness and excitement on his face through the whole walk. Aww, too cute.

Going on following Sam Cooke, the curtain rises again to reveal a band the audience all assumed was black too, and there are noticeable gasps from the all-African-American assemblage in attendance. "Well we weren't expecting y'all either," Buddy nervously laughs into the microphone, and they jump into performing "Oh Boy!" with an even stronger energy than at the Lubbock roller rink show. The full house sit enraptured by the hot tune, bobbing their heads and smiling in appreciation. The song ends with a strong blast of clapping and cheering. They're a hit! Woo hoo!

It gets even better when they launch into the next one: "It's So Easy". Here Charles gets to show off his musical talent even more, getting lots of shared microphone time with Mr. Busey. Hot damn, he is so unbearably cute in these music sequences. He's really rocking out and sounding solid. I love it so much!

The third song is "Rave On", which brings the audience to their feet. Now it's a dance party! King Curtis runs out on stage to join in with blasts from his sax, and Charles really goes hog-wild when he flings his bass on the floor and energetically flails away behind it as he plucks out the notes. Woah! Go Charlie go! Don't hold back! They finish the number and the crowd goes crazy with thunderous applause! Success!

Their highly-praised performance lands them a spot on a tour with other Apollo performers in a 1957 Caravan of Stars. In one of the cities they stop in, the tour bus arrives at a "restricted" hotel. Not a problem for the other black performers like Cooke or Curtis, but the desk clerk raises his eyebrows at the presence of three white boys among the performers. Mr. Cooke swiftly smooths things out with a cover story claiming the white folk are actually his personal assistants. To add to the illusion, Ray Bob asks Sam if he wants to be bathed before or after his rubdown. Oof, now I'm jealous... I want a rubdown and bath from Ray Bob! In any case, the cover story works and there are no further questions asked.

Sometime later (possibly in another city on the tour), the guys are sitting around their hotel room feeling rambunctious and ready to be randy. "Let's get some nookie," Buddy calls out, to which Ray Bob replies: "I'll buy that!" Jesse laughs and adds: "In this town you'll probably have to." At this moment, Buddy busts out his new secret weapon for getting chicks: his brand new (now trademark) horn rimmed Wayfarer glasses. As soon as he puts them on, Ray Bob cannot suppress his laughter, and Jesse snidely calls them binoculars. But Holly doesn't care what they think and sticks with wearing them. Right on, Buddy! Work the glasses!

Now the band is back in the studio recording another future classic: "Words of Love". After the first run-through, the recording techs call it a keeper, but Buddy considers it half-finished. "Why don't you rewind it and let me play with myself?" he requests. This gets a laugh from the guys in the control booth, and they crack that NYC must be rubbing off on him and turning him into a degenerate. "A man has to have a hobby," Jesse jokes in Buddy's defense. Sadly, Ray Bob has nothing to add to the masturbation humor. But that's alright. At least I got to enjoy another scene of him playing with his instrument.

But Buddy is talking about overdubbing, singing along to his first take and forming a Buddy duet. This clever idea is ruined when Buddy botches the retake without first backing up the initial run-through. It's that pretty Puerto Rican receptionist, distracting Buddy again with her shy beauty. The session is suspended for a few minutes as he chases the lovely young lady out into the hallway to request a date. When he returns to the recording booth,  a fight nearly breaks out when Jesse calls Maria Elena "dark meat". Yikes! Right before this occurs, I'm treated to the sexy sight of Charlie's furry forearms. But it's only momentary, as he rolls his sleeves down and hides the hair from view. Darn. Oh well, the rock star thing is sexy enough to not need the sight of a partially unclothed person anyways...

After a series of scenes depicting Buddy's courtship of Maria Elena, we see the band performing another live show, this time catching them just as they wrap up with the final notes of their set. It's time for Eddie Cochran to come on, but the Buddy fans in the audience won't quit shouting for Holly to come back onstage. So Eddie ends up calling Buddy back out to the delight of the crowd. They tear into a rollicking cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" while the Crickets watch from offstage. Ray Bob is enjoying it, happy to see Buddy do his thing, but when he turns to look at Jesse he notices jealousy on his bandmate's face. Uh oh, looks like trouble is brewing...

Things seem alright at first when we next see the guys, shopping at a car dealership for a Cadillac convertible for Buddy. It quickly becomes another fight when Jesse brings up his desire to return home to Lubbock in time for the holidays. "We can't go back to Lubbock, guys," Buddy tells them, insisting that NYC is their home now. Besides, there's that upcoming appearance on the Ed Sullivan holiday special they're committing to. This prompts a big blow-up from Jesse, who storms off with an outburst expressing his feelings of increasing irrelevance in the face of Buddy Holly's huge fame.

Although Ray Bob is gentler and kinder about it, he is in agreement with Jesse on something: being homesick for TX and not wanting to call NY his home. Buddy can't understand why the other two aren't more eager to jump into their new life, and after a few minutes debating the band's future Ray Bob agrees to smooth things over with Jesse, but begs Buddy to let them all take a break after the Ed Sullivan show.

Now it's the night of the holiday special. Buddy is pacing the dressing room, nervously awaiting the arrival of his late bandmates. Jesse and Ray Bob stagger in, fairly drunk, which doesn't sit well with Holly. "I'll probably just play better," Ray Bob says in defense of his inebriation. "Don't you ever relax?"

Yet another fight nearly busts out between Jesse and Buddy. "Hey y'all cut that out!" Ray Bob pleads, and the two calm down... but not before Buddy accidentally has one of his front teeth broken. Oh shit! There's 10 minutes to the performance! What will they do? Buddy asks for some chewing gum to stick the tooth back in place. How resourceful!

They keep it together for their performance of the song "Maybe Baby" and sound like nothing is wrong. Still polished and catchy, professionally keeping their tensions off the stage. But as soon as the number is over and they return to their dressing room, barely a word is spoken between them. Shortly after, Ray Bob and Jesse return to Lubbock, leaving Buddy to forge ahead alone.

There's one more scene near the end featuring CMS. The Crickets pay a visit to Maria Elena, now Buddy's wife, to tell her their plan to join Buddy on the road, catching him partway through his tour for a reunion of the complete original band. She thinks it's a great idea, telling the guys how much Buddy has missed them, and they look excitedly at the list of Buddy's tour dates to see where he will be performing next, so they can meet him there and surprise him. Sadly, of course, this never came to be, as the fateful plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly's life (along with JP Richardson and Ritchie Valens) happened before they could make it a reality.

Outside of a few flaws, this was a highly enjoyable film. True, some of the supporting players were kind of weak (Buddy's first girlfriend is pretty awful), and the occasionally bargain-basement period detail made me appreciate the meticulously recreated world of "American Graffiti" even more. Then of course there's the long list of historical inaccuracies, something that just about every biopic ever made can be accused of having. Ray Bob and Jesse, for example, are heavily fictionalized versions of a band that was in reality comprised of 3 Crickets instead of 2. But putting that aside, the lead performers (both their acting and their music) were all top-notch. In particular, I was so thrilled to see Charles Martin Smith basically be a rock star, singing and playing his heart out. I loved every second of it! I even debated posting a few clips from the film on this blog entry to show you just how awesome he is in this, but I decided it was better to just urge you to watch the whole film and see for yourself. Thanks to the film's well-deserved popularity, it's very easy to find on DVD.

Next entry, I am extremely excited to take an in-depth look one of my all-time favorite CMS movies: the awesome cult classic, "Cotton Candy" (1978)! See Charles continue his rock and roll streak, this time taking the lead role as the head of a high school rock band! Here's a peek to whet your appetite!

9-21-2012 UPDATE

Well, there WAS a peek. I'm sad to say the 30 second promo for "Cotton Candy" I had posted here has been removed from YouTube for the usual copyright reasons. In fact, several clips for this film have disappeared from that particular site. Very sad and very frustrating. With no official DVD release, this highly entertaining & seriously underrated movie could disappear from public consciousness entirely.

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