There was a boy and Ritchie Valens was his name…
The true tale of Ritchie Valens in Rock and Roll biopic of a life cut short far too early.
LA BAMBA 30th Anniversary Dual Format Trailer, Eurekaentertainment
Sixty one years ago, La Bamba, a Mexican folk song with a wee bit of Rock n Roll thrown in was a hit for the Mexican-American singer and songwriter Ritchie Valens. Valens, a young talented Chicano musician and singer had an all too short career. (Chicano refers to those people who are both American and Mexican).
However, sadly his life was cut short as Valens died at the age of 17 in a plane crash just eight months later. This plane crash also killed the singers Buddy Holly and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, along with their pilot Roger Peterson.
The film La Bamba (1987) was made 30 years later and tributed Valens, with the then relatively unknown Lou Diamond Philips in this leading role. The titular track was performed by Los Lobos became a number one hit on both sides of the Atlantic. This led to Valens being credited posthumously for writing a number one single.
The links with Chicano arts also apply to this film, with director Luis Valdez behind the camera for this bittersweet biopic. Valdez is a pioneer of the Chicano civil rights movement, and he also wrote the play Zoot Suite. He also began the El Teatro Campesino (a Chicano theatre company in California).
The film starts in a chilling way with a grainy filmed scene, where two planes collide and then explode with the remains falling to earth. Down below there are children playing in a schoolyard and one is killed by the debris. We discover this scene shows a recurrent nightmare for Valens.
In the film, Valens explains this nightmare relates to a freak accident that occurred during his childhood. Although he himself was not at school then, this event killed his best school friend and resulted in Valens’ fear of flying for most of his life and was based on true events.
The film starts in 1957 and chronicles Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) story in this final year of his life. In this year, he’s known as Richard Valenzuela, a school teenager who plays the guitar and loves Rock and Roll. He comes from a poor family and has a half brother, Bob Morales (Esai Morales). Valens adores his widowed mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto) and his wee sisters.
His brother returns to the family after some time away, and Valens introduces his girlfriend, Rosie (Elizabeth Peña) to him. Bob bringing some “honest” money home, enables the homeless family to move to a house in Pacoima. After stealing Rosie from Valens, she learns (too late) that he and his brother couldn’t be more different. Valens appears sweet, sensitive and caring, his brother a cruel and mean drunk who gets abusive physically and verbally.
Three months later, Ritchie falls for a blonde girl at school, named Donna (Danielle von Zerneck). They flirt between classes and there’s an obvious mutual attraction for them both. Ritchie auditions for the band The Silhouettes and becomes their guitarist. Despite Ritchie’s obvious singing talent, he does not sing at their first concert together. He invites Donna to the concert but she doesn’t come as her father is not happy with his daughter dating a poor Mexican American.
However, despite their turbulent relationship Rosie is living with Bob who sells illicit drugs and is often away from home. Rosie falls pregnant and the pair fight constantly. Meanwhile, life is happier for Valens, as there is sweet innocent chemistry developing between him and Donna.
She lives in a nice area of town, and Valens in a poorer area. Connie arranges a gig for Valens, he shows off his singing talent with Bob on the drums. Donna attends the gig, and Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) from Del-fi Records is present. After hearing Valens belt out some numbers, he offers Valens a recording contract.
Valens starts dating Donna and recording music in Keane’s basement. Meanwhile, Bob wins an art competition with his cartoon illustrations but is deeply jealous of his brother’s success. Donna’s father refuses to let Donna speak or see Ritchie, despite his success as a singer. Both teenagers are heartbroken.
After serenading Donna in a phone box with a song he wrote for her (Donna), Valens and his brother take off for a night out in Tijuana. There Valens discovers Chicano music and the La Bamba song, for which he writes his own lyrics for the tune. He is given a lucky talisman from an old man, which he wears constantly.
He flies for the first time with Keane giving him an alcoholic drink to steady his nerves. As Valens becomes more successful he buys his mother a house and himself a car. He makes plans with Donna after they reunite after he returns home. He plays in many concerts with some big names and to Donna’s delight, he performs Donna on American Bandstand. Then he accompanies Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper on tour…
I adored Philips sweet and natural interpretation of Valens. Despite being 25 at the time of filming Phillips gives a touching sincere and credible performance as this teenage singing star. He was convincing as the artist in those singing performances, which he appears to belt out those tracks with enthusiasm and boundless energy. Although all the Ritchie Valens songs were recorded by Los Lobos, you would hardly guess this. Phillips performs his lip-synching in tandem with David Hidalgo’s singing voice in all his performances.
Phillips easily sweeps you away to the 1950s, and another time and place. His strong acting performance is also noted in more dramatic scenes and showed the then hardly seen talents of this actor. With him only credited with a few minor roles before this, including that of a thug in the Dallas (1978-91) dream season and a detective role in Miami Vice (1987).
Phillips is wonderfully supported by Morales, who plays Bob in a rounded performance showing many sides to this character. Bob initially comes over as a mean drunk who abuses his girlfriend. However, he is also seen to be more vulnerable with him hoping for more attention from his mother when he is successful at drawing.
He is also close to his brother, and there is a clear camaraderie between him and Philips in their scenes together. There are some credible scenes showing the brothers relationships as friends and as brothers and at loggerheads and reunited. Morales final scene on learning of Valens’ death on the radio, shows Morales giving a heartbreaking performance at this tragic news.
As Valens family and friends hear the devastating news. De Soto shows Connie’s initial catatonia on hearing the devastating news before it sinks in. DeSoto gave a wonderful matriarchal and warm performance with all her on-screen children showing her unconditional support of her sons.
I adored those scenes with Danielle von Zerneck with Phillips as his on screen love interest. The pair had a lovely sweet and innocent on screen rapport and chemistry together. They played teenagers in love effectively and believably, so it had been a surprise to learn that both were in their twenties during filming.
La Bamba was a wonderful, well researched chronicle of Valens short career, which you find all the more sad remembering Ritchie Valens as a teenager who died after he rose to stardom in eight months. Although the story is true and you know the conclusion to the tale, it’s still a shock when these scenes are shown.
The film showing not just his story in the film but as events unfold we learn how they touched not only Valens but also from the perspective of his family and his first love, Donna. Valens seemed such a young boy who had plans for his musical and personal future.
For Valens, it’s clear that Donna appears to be the love of his life, and the girl he hopes to marry. It’s heartbreaking as we watch him as he persists in trying to see her and is unable to after they split. The pair reunite once he’s a success, and the tears will come as you see him making plans for their future and that he’ll marry her at 25. Valens adds, almost with a wee dash of foreshadowing;
“My mom reckons I’m going to be a star. And stars don’t fall from the sky”.
There are also cameo appearances from actors playing those singers who died along with Valens, in scenes with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. As we know – sadly ironically just as Valens gets over his fear of flying – that while on the Winter Dance Party, that that fateful date and the legendary coin toss moment comes along. That February 3rd, 1959 always remembered as the day that not only the music died.
Weeper Rating: 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦 😦/10
Handsqueeze Rating: /10
Hulk Rating: /10
This film was reviewed for Once Upon a Screen‘s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon. Lou Diamond Phillips starred in Dallas. Esai Morales starred in Fame. Rosanna DeSoto in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, About Last Night, Rhoda and McMillan and Wife. Danielle von Zerneck in Family Ties. Joe Pantoliano starred in The Goonies.