La Bamba (1987): Biopic of Ritchie Valens

Taylor Hackford’s musical biopic, La Bamba, written by Luis Valdez, presents a chronicle of the tragically short, tremendously successful career of Chicano rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens, well played by Lou Diamond Phillips.

Richard Steven Valenzuela (Phillips) is a normal teenage boy who becomes a rock ‘n’ roll superstar under the stage name Ritchie Valens. He meets and falls in love with fellow school student Donna Ludwig (von Zerneck), for whom he writes a song that becomes a hit, “Donna.” However, Donna’s father is against the romance with the Hispanic, which causes friction.

The movie also has several subplots, such as his relationship with his mother Connie Valenzuela (DeSoto) and half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), and the jealousy Bob felt toward Ritchie due to his success.

When Bob wins an art contest that helps cartoonists, he throws away his prize because his mother doesn’t care enough. Drinking heavily, he is not allowed to see the daughter he had fathered with Ritchie’s first girlfriend Rosie (Peña).  Occasionally, Ritchie and Bob take a road trip to Tijuana, visiting a local nightclub where Ritchie discovers the song that would become his signature, “La Bamba”.

The film also depicts Ritchie’s fear flying–in a recurring dream, he sees a collision between two planes ( an event that occurred over Ritchie’s school, in which Ritchie’s best friend was crushed to death by one of the fallen aircraft; Ritchie was absent from school that day to attend his grandfather’s funeral. Ritchie tries to avoid flying to his concerts, but he must eventually conquer his fear when invited to perform his song “Donna” on American Bandstand. Ritchie’s record producer and manager, Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), gives him vodka to calm his nerves during the flight to Philadelphia.

As Ritchie becomes more famous, his responsibilities change. He has to go on the ill-fated Winter Party Dance Tour with Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw) and “The Big Bopper” (Stephen Lee) after his hits, “La Bamba” and “Donna,” reach the top of the Billboard charts.

Valens, Holly, and Bopper take off in an airplane during a snowstorm for a fateful flight on February 3, 1959. That night became known as “The Day the Music Died.” Before the ill-fated flight, Ritchie makes a call to his brother, wherein they reconcile differences.

The next day, Bob hears the news bulletin on the radio that his brother’s plane crashed with no survivors. Predictably, the tragic news hits the Valenzuela family, Bob Keane, and Donna hard. In the final scene, the cars to Ritchie’s funeral are shown driving slowly into San Fernando Mission Cemetery.  Bob walks over a bridge, while screaming out Ritchie’s name, remembering the good times they had together—shown in flashback.

The last, uplifting image shows Lou Diamond Phillips, backed by the famous Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos, performing Valens’ version of “La Bamba.”

Though too conventional in format, and too sentimental in tone, “La Bamba” is enjoyable, due to the glorious music and Lou Diamond Phillips’ heartfelt performance.