“What the Sam Heck?”
Shot on $3000 to satisfy his graduate thesis, Nelson Cuellar‘s The Delray Story is a love letter to a bygone era of music. In a world filled with electronic beats and rehashed styles, where the kids fawn over celebrity images instead of good voices and quality sounds, accepting that the music died when Buddy Holly‘s plane crashed isn’t as hyperbolic as you may initially think. There seems to be little room these days for anything that’s not being played on the Top 40 or easily juxtaposed against strobe lights and the neon glow of a gyrating generation. Luckily for Delray (Dan O’Brien), however, some still remember the appeal of a singer/songwriter hitting the stage to belt poppy tunes from his heart.
O’Brien—from TV’s “Whitney”—leads the way in a sweetly innocent portrayal of a mild-mannered rhythm & blues musician. Possessed of a seemingly permanent sunny disposition, he walks the streets with a bounce in his steps and a naivety to the mocking of acquaintances passing by. Constantly told his music is dead and the new wave of Wolf Parade Fire is taking over—and stealing his popsicles—even his drummer Hector (Cuellar) quits the band to seek a new sound with better exposure. Only his older coworkers at the local bakery still want to hear his Holly-infused ditties, but they’re sadly not the ones coming out to the club on a Friday night.
Co-written by Cuellar and his wife Jessica, The Delray Story is chock full of references to the Virginia town where it is shot. A climactic scene inside a speeding car appears to occur as such strictly because they wanted to put the famously steep hill in the film. Aspects like this add a certain charm to the whole as well as specificity for residents involved in the production—and maybe graduate teachers grading the project. And while charm goes a long way in portraying passion, it also exposes budgetary constraints. With an opening newsreel montage setting up the spirit of Buddy Holly floating through the ages as his glasses and a very hard to read effect on the chapter cards, the production value does unfortunately suffer.
Looking past these hard to avoid shortcomings, the central role of Delray does find itself to be a heartwarming and likeable hero to rally behind. His luck turns quickly and serendipitously—a problem inherent in shorts with little time for smooth progression—and he works toward finally getting on stage to convert those watching into fans. A love interest from Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas in Cindy Lou (Stephanie Danna Cash) helps boost his confidence and the quest for glory finds a way to win Hector back for a concert containing the potential to wash away all the missteps and false starts from his past.
Cute references to rhythm & blues—Delray’s pet canary is named Sam Cooke—may not overcome its limitations as a film, but they do allow a level of enjoyment for music lovers who appreciate the era. The social commentary on our current scene is nicely tongue-in-cheek but gets lost against the underdog tale at the front. Luckily Delray’s tale is endearing enough to hold your attention as the original songs from Phil Carluzzo bring the 50s back to life. If nothing else, watching Dan O’Brien and the Del-ragers perform “Stuck On You” and “Give You All My Milkshake” should earn a genuine smile.