Scattered among the treasures debuting on Blu-ray this week (and there are many, from collections of Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett comedy shorts to Fritz Lang’s Man Hunt to John Cassavetes’ Love Streams) are four films that pay tribute to two of the pioneering greats of American rock and roll.
Buddy Holly died young, long before he was finished making his creative contribution to the fledgling rock genre and before the movies had a chance to try him out as a screen performer. So instead of Buddy on the big screen, we have Gary Busey playing the musical hipster from the Bible-belt culture of Lubbock, Texas in The Buddy Holly Story (Twilight Time, Blu-ray). This 1978 biopic is almost square in its straightforward storytelling yet utterly engaging and oddly expressive of the creative spirit from an unlikely rebel. This is one of my favorite rock biopics of all time and decades later I still prefer it to the more flamboyant and self-conscious portraits of musical legends that have become the fashion. This is so square that it’s hip!
Busey’s gangly physicality, crooked, toothy smiles, and stage intensity brings Holly to life as both an unlikely rock ‘n’ roll rebel (he was first rock star to wear glasses onstage and in publicity shots) and an original voice in pop music. Off stage he’s the sweet, goofy, slightly odd boy next door with a gift for music, and onstage he turns every performance into an act of creation, as if each song is reborn when played for each new audience. Don Stroud and Charles Martin Smith provide solid back-up as bass man Jesse and drummer Ray Bob, fictionalized versions of the original Crickets (the origin of their name may be apocryphal but it is nonetheless a delightful scene) and Conrad Janis (of Mork and Mindy) is another fictional creation loosely inspired by Norman Petty, a record executive who chooses to back the instincts of this young man from Lubbock.
Director Steve Rash stumbled with his next film, the tone-deaf comedy Under the Rainbow, and never really recovered (lately he’s been relegated to direct-to-disc sequels) but on The Buddy Holly Story, which was his debut feature, his instincts and his execution are dead on. He eschews both reverence and show-biz melodrama for a low-key evocation of late-1950s culture and a no-nonsense peek into the workings of the music business and the practical approach that Holly took to creating the distinctive sound of his records. This isn’t genius springing fully formed from the artist like a wellspring but ideas developed and worked over by a professional devoted to his art. It may be the most unaffected biography of a musical great ever made, certainly one of the few that acknowledges the hard work and commitment necessary to creating music. It earned Busey his first and only Oscar nomination for Best Actor and reminds us that before he became a celebrity train wreck and reality TV joke, Busey was a fine actor who had at least one brilliant performance in his long career.
The musical recreation of Holly’s hits and sound is superb, from Busey’s Texas twang to the band thumping away behind a driving guitar creating both more sound and more melody than you thought possible from a single electric instrument. The musical adaptation earned the film its only Academy Award and is isolated on separate audio track on the Blu-ray debut, which is a trademark feature of Twilight Time releases put to a slightly different emphasis this time around. It also features commentary by director Steve Rash and star Gary Busey carried over from the old DVD release, the trailer, and an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. It is limited to 3000 copies and available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.
From Buddy Holly we go to The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll himself. I’d never argue that Viva Las Vegas was the finest big screen effort from Elvis Presley but there is something magic in the pairing of Presley with screen spitfire Ann-Margaret, the only female co-star to make Presley work for the spotlight. Viva Las Vegas: 50th Anniversary Premium Digibook (Warner, Blu-ray) celebrates the masterpiece of the disposable productions he knocked out with alarming speed in the 1960s and spotlights the greatest chemistry to make an Elvis feature pop.
Forget the disposable script, where down-on-his-luck race car driver Elvis loses his bankroll in a swimming pool stunt and is lured off course to pursue a girl. George Sidney, a veteran of classic MGM Technicolor musicals, is at the helm and he gives even the silliest numbers a dynamic missing from Presley’s other sixties song-fests. It’s all color and glamour and sexy fun. Elvis sings “Come On, Everybody” and makes Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” all his own while sex-kitten Ann-Margret whips up a storm with her TNT-packed go-go moves. Colonel Tom Parker made sure a co-star never again made Elvis work for the spotlight in one of his movies.
It’s been on Blu-ray before and this edition features the same supplements as the earlier release—commentary by music journalist Steve Pond (author of “Elvis in Hollywood”) and the featurette “Kingdom: Elvis in Hollywood”—but it comes in a new Blu-raybook with a 40-page collection of stills, art and film notes.
Elvis: That’s the Way It Is – Two Disc Special Edition Premium Digibook (Warner, Blu-ray) presents the definitive portrait of Elvis as the Vegas headliner, following the King through his 1970 summer engagement in Las Vegas from backstage bustle to box-office hustle to 27 stage numbers. The original release of Elvis’ rebirth as a Vegas showman was a concert rockumentary interspersed with interviews, backstage material, and a wealth of footage featuring the King in rehearsal. This version features the Blu-ray debut of the 2001 home video revision, which was re-edited by restoration producer Rick Schmidlin. He jettisons the fan interviews for more music, all for the better. The rehearsals are still a highlight, where Elvis jokes and laughs with an ease that stands in sharp contrast to his mumbling on-stage banter. Is the King nervous in his live comeback? Only between songs, it seems: he pours sweat in a passionate performance, but when he sings it sounds effortless.
This release includes the restoration featurette “Patch It Up: The Restoration of Elvis: That’s the Way It Is” and a dozen outtakes and also features the original 1970 cut (on DVD only).
It’s not in the same league as these, but there is another Elvis film coming out this week. Follow That Dream (Twilight Time, Blu-ray) is one of those dopey sixties musicals built on a wisp of a story and a bunch of songs, this one casting Elvis as a dim-witted hillbilly who, along with his family, takes up residence on a vacant plot of land in Florida when their ancient care breaks down on the road. The score and song soundtrack is available on an isolated audio track and there is an eight-page booklet with a new essay by Julie Kirgo. Limited to 3000 copies, available exclusively from Screen Archives and TCM.