The film opens at The Buddy Holly Hayride presented by radio station KDAV in Lubbock, Texas in 1956. During the opening credits, Holly (Charles Hardin Buddy Holley's last name was misspelled on his recording contract, so he simply adopted the misspelling as his last name) and his fellow band members (The Crickets' names were changed to avoid legal action from Jerry Allison and Joe B. Mauldin. The group's rhythm guitarist, Niki Sullivan, was ignored by the film, as was the groups manager, Norman Petty), drummer Jesse Charles (Don Stroud) and bass player Ray Bob Simmons (Charles Martin Smith), set up their music instruments and test their sound equipment at Parker's Roller Rink.
As the radio station prepares to broadcast live, a recording of country artist Lefty Frizzell singing "If You've Got the Money, Honey (I've Got the Time)" is heard on the radio. Holly's first number is a cover version of Les Paul and Mary Ford's recording of "Mockingbird Hill." During a commercial break, some of the younger members of the audience beg Buddy to play some bop. After the commercial Buddy Holly (Gary Busey) announces they will be performing the next number for the boppers ("Rock Around with Ollie Vee"). The youngsters enjoy it, but the older audience members cover their ears from the loud tone and one of the radio station's sponsors demands that Buddy be taken off the air or he will pull his advertising. The station's owner/disk jockey, Riley Randolph (Bill Jordan), actually thinks they sound pretty good and he likes the response from the youngsters. So, the guys perform another of their numbers, "That'll Be the Day."
The next scene is in a church where the choir is sings "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder." Buddy, his girlfriend, Cindy or Cindy Lou (Amy Johnston), and his parents are in the congregation. The minister comments on what took place the previous night at the roller rink. He declares that this new "jungle rhythm" music is un-Christian and un-American. As the pastor's harangue against music that he considers a threat to society continues, Buddy and his parents drive home in their pick-up truck.
During Sunday dinner, Buddy discloses that he has decided not to attend seminary. His mother feels she and his father have been more than patient about his decision and have even allowed him to sow his wild oats by playing his music, but they would like to know what he plans for his future. He readily admits he has no idea.
Out on a date with Cindy, they listen to rhythm and blues music ("In the Still of the Nite" by the Five Satins) on KWKH, a radio station from Shreveport, Louisiana. Some of his band buddies interrupt Buddy and Cindy's love making session to tell Buddy that Riley is looking for him.
When Buddy goes to the radio station, Riley gives him some records by several R&B artists because he can't play them on his station. Riley calls the music "rock and roll," a title that he says was devised by Cleveland DJ, Alan Freed. He also tells Buddy that a vice president of World Records heard the roller rink show and wants the band to come to Nashville.
On the trip to Nashville, the car radio plays "Lisbon Antigua" by Nelson Riddle and His Orchestra. They quickly turn the dial to find a station that plays R&B, but, when they can't find one, they turn the radio off. In the back seat of the car, Buddy plays his guitar and works on a new song using his girlfriend's name (the song eventually becomes "Peggy Sue").
In the Nashville recording studio, Buddy records "That'll Be the Day" in the hillbilly style that the record producer wants. Jesse and Ray Bob furnish the background vocals, but Jesse isn't allowed to play his drums (drums weren't permitted in country music at this time) and Ray Bob isn't allowed to play bass; instead, a country band accompanies them. When Buddy finally objects, the producer tells him there "ain't no such thing as a hit record with just three guys playin' in any kind of music." Since the record company refuses to listen to Buddy's objections, they pack up and head home.
Back in Lubbock, Buddy is ready to hang it up. Riley has had more negative feedback about Buddy's radio show from his sponsors. He tells Buddy he must only play country music or he will be forced to fire him. Buddy is determined to play his music. Before he departs, Riley tells him he sent his tape to a record company in New York (Riley had recorded a couple of tunes from the roller rink show).
In New York, Coral Records executive, Ross Turner (Conrad Janis) is considering signing Buddy and his band. When the company's A&R man heard the demo of "That'll Be the Day," he assumed Ross had purchased the master from another label. He thought the group had the most unique sound he had heard in years, so he had it pressed and released. The A&R guy advises Ross that he had better sign them immediately because the disc is already selling.
Back in Lubbock, Buddy, Jesse and Ray Bob record "Everyday" in his garage. Buddy is bothered by a sound that they eventually determine is being made by a cricket. Buddy asks Ray Bob to get a glockenspiel from the high school band to use on the recording. Buddy's mother interrupts the session to tell Buddy he has a long distance call from New York.
A Buffalo, New York DJ, Madman Mancuso (Fred Travalena), telephones Buddy to tell him that he has been playing his hit recording of "That'll Be the Day" continuously for the past fourteen hours and intends to play it until he breaks the world's record. When Mancuso asks about the instrumentation of the band, Buddy explains that it is only a guitar, bass, drums and a cricket, so the DJ calls them Buddy Holly and the Crickets.
At Coral Records in New York, Buddy is very impressed with Ross Turner's secretary, Maria Elena Santiago (Maria Richwine). The band members' interest in signing a recording contract is peaked when Mr. Turner tells them they should each make about $25,000 from "That'll Be the Day." However, when Turner mentions assigning a top notch producer for their recordings, Buddy balks. After their previous experience with the producer in Nashville, Buddy demands to be the producer. Turner tells him that no artist is allowed to be his own producer, but when Buddy and the guys threaten to go to another record company, Ross gives in to Buddy's demand.
Buddy and the Crickets are booked for a concert at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The short-sighted Sol Gitler (Dick O'Neill) had signed them sight-unseen and assumed from hearing their music that they were African-American. Even though no whites had ever performed at the Apollo, Gitler wasn't willing to pay them for doing nothing, so he apprehensively allows them to perform. As they prepare to go on in their country and western-looking duds, Sam Cooke (Paul Mooney) sings "You Send Me" from on stage. When Buddy and the Crickets are announced and the curtain opens to reveal a trio of white guys, the Apollo crowd grows restless. However, Buddy's songs, "Oh, Boy!," "It's So Easy," and "Rave On," quickly win the crowd over. During "Rave On" several couples dance in the aisles. King Curtis (Craig White) and another African-American sax player join the Crickets during an instrumental break.
During their next recording session, the guys record "Words of Love." Afterwards, Buddy overdubs another guitar and vocal part. When Maria comes into the recording booth, Buddy gets so flustered that he flubs his vocal. Buddy has been sending her roses, but when he asks her out, she reveals that her aunt, who works in the publishing department, will not allow her to date a musician or a non-Puerto Rican.
Back in the recording studio, Buddy and the engineers listen to the final take of "Listen to Me." Buddy refuses to give up on Maria, so he goes to visit her aunt. He tells Mrs. Santiago (Gloria Irricari) that he is a music executive at Coral. Buddy impresses Maria's aunt by asking permission to court her niece. Once she grants her permission, Mrs. Santiago surprises Buddy by knowing who he really is and complimenting his performance on Dick Clark's TV show, 'American Bandstand'.
On their very first date, Maria accepts Buddy's marriage proposal and they are soon married (although the film doesn't show the wedding). After Alan Freed moves to New York from Cleveland, Buddy and the Crickets perform on Freed's Moondog's Rock 'n' Roll Party along with Eddie Cochran (Jerry Zaremba). When the M.C. introduces Eddie, the crowd is still chanting for Buddy, so Eddie calls him back on stage to join him and his band in Jerry Lee Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On." Jesse and Ray Bob want to go back to Lubbock, but Buddy thinks they need to stay near the music business in New York City.
Backstage while they're waiting to perform on the 'Ed Sullivan Show', both Jesse and Ray Bob have had too much to drink. They also get in a little fight and Buddy loses a cap off of one of his teeth, which he patches with some chewing gum. Once Sullivan announces them, they perform "Maybe Baby." Shortly after the Sullivan show performance, Ray Bob and Jesse return to Lubbock. All three agree that the name, the Crickets, will go with them, so Buddy becomes a solo act. Turner tells Buddy he needs to go on tour to promote his new identity and his new album, but Buddy doesnt want to tour.
At Christmas 1958, a neighbor boy brings a guitar he had received as a present to Buddy because, he said, it was broke. After Buddy tunes the guitar, he teaches the boy to play some chords by playing and singing "Well, All Right." After the boy and his friend leave, Buddy admits to Maria that he is scared to go out on the road again without the Crickets. After admitting his fears, he decides to go on the tour even though Maria is now six months pregnant.
On February 2, 1959 at the Clear Lake, Iowa stop on the Winter Party Tour, J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (Gailard Sartain), a DJ from Beaumont, Texas, performs his hit, "Chantilly Lace." From backstage, Buddy calls Maria to check on her and her pregnancy. Shortly after she hangs up the telephone, Jesse and Ray Bob knock on her door. They want to rejoin Buddy, but they aren't sure he wants them back. After Maria reassures them that he would welcome their return, they decide to meet Buddy at the next stop on the tour.
Back in Clear Lake, the Big Bopper introduces Buddy, who sings "True Love Ways," which was inspired by something Maria said to him. He dedicates the song to Maria. After that slow ballad, Buddy performs a medley containing all of his songs: "That'll Be the Day," "Oh, Boy!," "Peggy Sue," "Maybe Baby," and "Not Fade Away."
At the end of the medley, the screen freezes on a shot of Buddy and the following statement appears on the screen: "Buddy Holly died later that night along with J.P. 'The Big Bopper' Richardson and Richie Valens in the crash of a private airplane just outside of Clear Lake... And the rest is rock 'n' roll."