- Movie Rating -

La Bamba (1987)

| July 24, 1987

Ritchie Valens was only 17-years-old when he perished in a plane crash on February 3, 1959 along with Buddy Holly and J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, a date dubbed The Day the Music Died.  Valens was a Chicano-American kid from Pacoima, California whose career lasted a little less than a year and in that time produced three hit records that are still remembered today: “Come On, Let’s Go”, “La Bamba” and the love ballad “Donna.”

The legend of that plane crash has taken on mythic proportions and has already inspired The Buddy Holly Story featuring Gary Busey’s single best performance.  It is a better movie largely because Holly’s story yields much more interesting ground.  That doesn’t make La Bamba a bad movie, only that since Valens died so young, the movie has to build on very short period of time.

Most of the movie deals with Ritchie Valens, played in a good performance by Lou Diamond Phillips a thoughtful Chicano kid who came out dirt poor origins in California who had a God-given talent for music.  He had a passion for music, and one of the most effective qualities of Phillips’ performance is that you can feel that passion down to his bones.  We meet his family who are at odds with each other, especially between mother Connie (Rosana DeSoto) and his flywheel half-brother Bob (Esai Morales).  The family is at odds with one another mainly due to Bob’s inability to take responsibility for anything, but they all support Ritchie’s dream.

What the movie does best is to show us the world that Ritchie came from.,  He was Chicano-American and was raised in migrant labor camps facing poverty and racism.  He and Bob share a tight bond even when Bob disappears for a time and later reappears with a fancy new motorcycle.  Bob is well-meaning but you get the sense that while he loves and admires his brother, he also resents his talent and his budding success.

Naturally, given the time, one of Ritchie’s biggest hurdles is the racism that he experiences.  When he began to sing and work around other parts of Los Angeles, he found a girlfriend, a while girl named Donna (Danielle von Zerneck) whose father absolutely do not approve of.  She goes on to inspire the hit song “Donna” and they that gives them concern as well.

The story of La Bamba is not all that complex mostly, again, because we are dealing with a very short life-span.  So, director Luis Valdez has to pad the story with a lot of fore-shadowing of Ritchie’s plane crash.  The movie opens with a scene like that, a scene out of his real-life childhood in which a friend was killed when he apparently witnessed two planes collide.  That foreshadowing runs all through the movie and we get the inevitable scene of Ritchie waking up in bed in a cold sweat.  Later, of course, we get the same scene from The Buddy Holly Story of the guys standing around in a blizzard in Mason City flipping a coin to decide who would get on that plane.

La Bamba is more interesting than anything else.  It’s a small film with some good things in it, but this is a harder story to tell.  But the one thing that really sinks it for me is the recreation of Valens musical performances.  His voice is dubbed in song by the band Los Lobos.  We can tell when Phillips sings into a microphone that it isn’t him.  It is obviously dubbed by someone else and, for me that was a distraction.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(1987) View IMDB Filed in: Drama