Every Chicano over a certain age has seen La Bamba.
Along with fellow tragic musical biopic Selena, it is probably the Chicano (those of Mexican descent born in the U.S.) movie. It’s long been a staple amongst that demographic—due as much, if not moreso, to its prevalence on cable television throughout the ‘90s as any cultural connections. And while it received critical and commercial success upon its original release, and has since been canonized within the National Film Registry of the U.S. Library of Congress, its reputation has gotten somewhat lost within the glut of musical biopics of the intervening 36 years. But that’s due to change, thanks to a brand new restoration and release from The Criterion Collection.
The sophomore feature from from playwright-turned-filmmaker Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit), recognized as ‘the father of Chicano cinema’, La Bamba traces the short life of ‘50’s rock-n’-roller and heartthrob Ritchie Valens (nee, Richard Velenzuela), a self-taught singer and guitar player from Los Angeles who rocketed up the charts with the hits “La Bamba” and “Donna” while still in high school, only to perish at age 17, alongside fellow top-charters Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, in the infamous plane crash on what is known today as ‘The Day the Music Died.’
Valdez opens his film with a scene out of a thriller—a young Chicano child is playing basketball on a middle school court when a plane falls out of the sky right in front of him, landing on and killing his best friend. This turns out to be 16-year-old Ritchie’s recurring nightmare, one based on true events. Although he wasn’t actually present when a small plane crashed at his school—he was absent on account of his grandfather’s funeral—his best friend really was killed by falling debris, and had he been there that day, there’s a good chance he’d have been killed as well. This auspicious opening gives everything that follows a death-haunted vibe, turning Valens—played, in his breakout performance, by a fresh-faced Lou Diamond Phillips—the quality of a tragic Greek figure. He is simply too beautiful to live, so the Gods have decreed he must die young. And in the most ironic way possible.
But La Bamba is not a Greek tragedy. It is a crowd pleasing (save for the utterly unrelenting bummer of a final scene) blast of musical nostalgia. The film does hit many of the expected beats of its genre: we follow Ritchie through his humble l, impoverished beginnings, to his early days playing in a garage band, to his discovery by an agent (Joe Pantoliano, playing against type as a good guy for a change) and cutting his first record, to the ‘Eureka!’ moment where he hears the titular Mexican folk song and decides to infuse it with some rock n’ roll, to the big show-stopping performances on American Bandstand and Alan Freed’s 1st Anniversary Rock ‘n’ Roll Show in New York City, to the last night in Clear Lake, Iowa when he boards the ill-fated airplane (which they only took because their tour bus broke down).
Because Ritchie died just as he was becoming super-famous, the film is absent, by necessity, of the standard second half ‘fall’ most musician biopics contain. This isn’t to suggest that Ritchie would have fallen victim to the excesses of fame and fortune that so many of his brethren did—and in fact, if Valdez’s depiction is at all accurate, he likely would have steered clear of them, given how focused he was (with the help and attention of his business-savvy mother, played by Rosana DeSotto) on keeping himself on the straight and narrow.
This would present a conundrum for most filmmakers, since there’s really only half a story there (not to mention that the hero is a bit of a goody-two-shoes). Valdez solves this by making La Bamba as much—if not more—about Ritchie’s family as it is him, particularly his troubled relationship with his half-brother Bob (Esai Morales), a hard-drinking, womanizing, bike-riding, pot-dealing bad boy who is fiercely supportive of RItchie until jealousy over his success and resentment over their mother’s disproportionate affection begins to break down their bond.
As great as Phillip is as Valens, it’s Morales who steals the show. His Bob is a seemingly fun-loving bad boy, but his initial charm quickly fades, revealing him as a toxic personality who must always be the center of attention—even if the attention is negative. It’s a pretty big gamble on Valdez’s part to spend so much time with Bob, given how repulsive he can be—the scenes where he beats and even sexually abuses his wife (Elizabeth Pena in an early memorable performance) are particularly tough to stomach—but it gives the film a real tension missing from other such biopics, with the end result reminiscent of Robert De Niro’s raw-nerve performances in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets and Raging Bull.
Valdez also spends a good amount of time on the relationship between Valens and high school sweetheart Donna, not so much for the love story itself (theirs is a puppy-dog romance that, like everything about Valens’s life, died before it got a chance to blossom), but as a vessel to explore the racial politics of the day. Outside of having to change his name to something more palatable for white audiences (a moment that is depicted with pathos, but not overdone), Valens’s ethnicity didn’t seem to hamper his rise to stardom, but it was the cause of tensions in his love life, with Donna’s bigoted white parents disapproving of her dating a Mexican boy.
La Bamba succeeds so much as a work of Chicano cinema specifically because it acknowledges these racial tensions while not foregrounding them. Had Valens lived, it’s entirely possible and even likely he would have spoken out for civil rights in the same way other musicians of his generation did (including Sam Cooke, whom he once appeared alongside for a local high school fundraiser). Given his history as a California field hand, one can very easily imagine Valens campaigning alongside Valdez himself in Cesar Chavez’s mission to organize farm workers.
However, that wasn’t to be part of Valens’s story, and as such a greater focus on the racial politics of the day did not play a major part of his daily life. In fact, Valens, like many a Chicano (including the aforementioned Selena Quintanilla) was never fluent in Spanish and learned the lyrics of his Spanish-language hit phonetically. This both forces and allows Valdez to instead focus in on the individual story of Valens and the Valenzuela family, thus avoiding the often-treacly collective affirmations that plague so many racial and ethnically-driven films.
At the risk of being reactionary, it’s easy to imagine an angry discourse popping up if the film were made today over the Filipino Phillips playing such a revered Chicano icon. Luckily, La Bamba came out during a time in which the discourse over films hadn’t been entirely taken over by political considerations, allowing it to find purchase amongst not only Chicanos, but broader audiences as well. At a recent screening in Los Angeles, the group presenting the film described it as a celebration of both Chicano and Filipino culture. That’s the way it should be, and now, thanks to the renewed attention it’s likely to receive via its induction into The Criterion Collection, a broader range of cinephiles will be able to appreciate it not merely for its cultural bonafides, but as the damn good movie that it is.