LA BAMBA. Directed nnd written by Luis Valdez; produced by Taylor Hackford and Bill Borden for Columbia. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales and Rosana DeSoto. Rated PG-13 (a few sexual references, a little vulgar language).
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Ritchie Valens is one of those semi-famous footnotes. He's a good subject for a trivia question—name one of the other people killed in the same plane crash with Buddy Holly in 1959. As it turns out, he's also a pretty good subject for a movie. Chances are his name will be saved from the trivia graveyard for good because of La Bamba.
Less than a year before he died, Ritchie had only been playing his guitar in garages in southern California. Quite a way to go in such a short time. And for such a young man. He was only 17 when both fame, and death, came suddenly.
Facts like these are dramatic enough by themselves, needing little embellishment. And La Bamba tells Ritchie's story in a fairly straightforward manner. From its opening, with Ritchie (still Richard Valenzuela) and his family working in California's fruit orchards, to the end, the movie is as much about family relationships as it is about rock-and-roll music.
Ritchie's older brother Bob (played with a complex intensity by Morales) is the juiciest role. Just out of prison at the beginning of La Bamba, he gets drunk a lot, seduces Ritchie's girlfriend, runs around on her, and generally embarrasses his otherwise decent and law-abiding family.
But Bob isn't just a louse. He really loves his mother and brother. And we learn in the course of the movie that there are some compelling psychological reasons why he behaves as badly as he does. Morales is equally adept at protraying both Bob's wild and his tender impulses in a very strong performance.
Connie (DeSoto) is a strong figure as the matriarch of the Valenzuela family. Her motherly love is all-encompassing, even if she can't understand what torments her oldest son so fiercely. She's an interesting, fully-developed character, too, though, not just a symbol. She's lively and smart and as gleeful as a child over Ritchie's eventual success.
Ritchie himself (Phillips) is a complicated character. For the first half, or more, of the movie, he's not really as interesting as Bob is. He's a good boy and a loyal son, going to school most of the time, but occasionally skipping to play his guitar. He says that his music is his passion, but he doesn't act passionate about anything, except maybe Donna (Danielle von Zerneck), a new girl in the class.
But as the story unfolds and Ritchie's career takes off, his character does, too. He visibly grows in self-confidence, assertiveness and sex appeal. By the time La Bamba reaches its musical climax, at a live show in New York, and its emotional climax, a family Christmas in California, Ritchie is very much the focus of story.
Although the emphasis on character relationships here is somewhat unusual for a rock-and-roll movie, the music is also an attraction. Valens recorded only three hit songs before his death, so understandably the movie's soundtrack contains music by others as well.
The songs Ritchie sings are actually performed by the group Los Lobos. Their sound is extremely faithful to the original, at least in the case of Valens' hits. Phillips also does an impressive job of lip-syncing; without the production notes which tell me otherwise, I would have guessed that he was singing the songs himself.
A few other contemporary rock stars are shown performing and La Bamba' s approach to these spots is interesting. Contemporary musicians with similar musical styles play the older rockers: Marshall Crenshaw is Buddy Holly, Brian Setzer is Eddie Cochran and Howard Huntsberry is Jackie Wilson. All of the music, as background and in the performances, is a lot of fun, especially for fans of early rock-and-roll.
But La Bamba will appeal to lots of other types of moviegoers as well, because of its strong characters and good acting.
August 5, 1987