WEIRDLAND: "Young Man with a Horn" (Noir City Film Festival), Buddy Holly: Christmas Rockabilly

Monday, December 21, 2015

"Young Man with a Horn" (Noir City Film Festival), Buddy Holly: Christmas Rockabilly

The Noir City Film Festival returns to San Francisco's majestic Castro Theatre for its 14th edition, January 22-31, 2016. Its timely theme, given the threat traditional arts face from the technology revolution and its skyrocketing living costs, is “The Art of Darkness”—a collection of 25 noir-stained films exploring the pressures, pitfalls, paranoia and pain of being an artist in an indifferent and often cruel world. This time the tortured protagonists aren't felons or fall guys, they're writers, painters, dancers, photographers, and musicians. Some of the best art-flavored classic noirs will screen, including Nicholas Ray's In a Lonely Place and Fritz Lang's Scarlet Street.

YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN - 1950. Rick Martin (Kirk Douglas) finds a sense of belonging in only one thing—the trumpet he bonded with as a young orphan. In his rise to artistic success, Martin struggles to maintain relationships as strong as the music he creates, and eventually he risks losing everything in a steady swirl of arrogance and alcohol. Doris Day plays the singer/savior Martin tosses aside in favor of sultry Amy North (Lauren Bacall), an ennui-ridden socialite whose bisexuality stealthily slipped past the Hollywood censors. Source:

Young Man with a Horn is a 1950 musical drama film based on a novel of the same name by Dorothy Baker inspired by the life of Bix Beiderbecke, the jazz cornetist. His death, in turn, gave rise to one of the original legends of jazz. In magazine articles, musicians' memoirs, novels, and Hollywood films, Beiderbecke has been reincarnated as a Romantic hero, the "Young Man with a Horn". His life has been portrayed as a battle against such common obstacles to art as family and commerce, while his death has been seen as a martyrdom for the sake of art. The musician-critic Benny Green called Beiderbecke "jazz's Number One Saint," while Ralph Berton compared him to Jesus. The romantic notion of the short-lived, doomed jazz genius can be traced back at least as far as Beiderbecke, and lived on in Glenn Miller, Charlie Parker, Billie Holliday, Jaco Pastorius and many more.

In the film, Rick becomes an alcoholic who neglects his music and even destroys his horn. He disappears, until one day Smoke finds him in a drunk tank. Jo is contacted and rushes to Rick's side, helping him to recover his love of music and of her—a happy ending found neither in the novel nor in the life of Bix Beiderbecke.

Kirk Douglas as Rick Martin and Lauren Bacall as Amy North, publicity still of Young Man with a Horn (1950)

Doris Day as Jo Jordan in Young Man with a Horn (1950).

Yelping, growling, delighting in his voice as an instrument of seemingly infinite inflection and suppleness, Buddy Holly proved that he could hold his own with the wildest men in rock. Catching New York’s Christmas 1957 spirit, Buddy bought himself the present of his dreams, going into Manny’s and selecting a Guild F-50 Navarre acoustic guitarIt can be heard on “Well All Right.”

‘I’m Gonna Love You Too’ was a frisky rockabilly throwback on which the Crickets found themselves augumented from an unexpectedly appropriate quarter. As the last notes of the playback died away, a real cricket, which had somehow found its way into the echo-chamber, gave a reverberant double chirrup. Since the noise happened to be exactly in beat, they decided to leave it on the record. 

Some of his guitars were only briefly in his possession. Buddy enjoyed giving them away to young rockers who couldn’t afford them. Joe B Mauldin says that Buddy was the most generous person he’d ever encountered. One day at the Paramount a youth approached Buddy and said he really admired Buddy’s guitar. “Here, man, you keep it,” Buddy said. As Christmas 1958 approached, on December 14, he recorded the eloquent “Crying, Waiting, Hoping.” Buddy’s voice gently probes the poignancy of every line, uncovering nuances of truth and emotion that lift the song to universal significance.

“Learning the Game,” relentlessly tragic in its view of romance, was the last of the apartment tapes, recorded on December 17. Buddy had borrowed enough money to shower his family with expensive presents, which the financially strapped Holleys appreciated. Larry Holley would look back on the 1958 holiday season as a glorious Christmas. The Avalanche-Journal carried a picture of carolers on the front page with the headline "Christmas Arrives Quietly Over Area". Though Buddy Holly’s visit was by far the most newsworthy event to occur in Lubbock that Christmas, the paper made no mention of him. Throughout his career, his hometown paper, either through reportorial oversight or in deference to its Bible Belt readership, ignored him, despite hit records and a triumphant world tour.

The recordbuying public also ignored the stunning oddity of “Mailman, Bring Me No More Blues.” Holly desperately needed some good news, but Decca kept him completely in the dark about the sales of “That’ll Be the Day.” 

Back in Lubbock, Buddy called on old friends, sang his latest songs for them, and encouraged any beginners who sought him out.  “Raining in My Heart” was one of Buddy's personal favorites. Larry agreed it was the best thing Buddy had ever done. Buddy’s voice had never been more tender or appealing than in this ballad, which tells of a lover’s brave, vain efforts to hide his broken heart. Above all, the recording evokes the sweetness of the singer: Buddy Holly’s power to evoke our love is uncanny. 

Hollywood has yet to produce an authentic portrait of the rock ’n’ roll experience, though it is one of the most emblematic of the twentieth century. The moviemakers’ flirtation with Buddy Holly’s life is a classic example of distortion and exploitation, smoothing out the hard, jagged edges that make a life in rock ’n’ roll so engaging, perilous, tragic, and archetypically modern—torn between a yearning for acceptance and a compulsion to destroy all that is false and hypocritical in society. The real Buddy Holly is to be found nowhere in the various efforts to represent him on film. —"Buddy Holly: A Biography" (2014) by Ellis Amburn.

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