Sunday 11 April 2021

Movie Review: La Bamba (1987)

A biography of rock 'n' roll pioneer and teen-aged heart-throb Ritchie Valens, La Bamba is a well-constructed if old-fashioned recounting of a young man's rapid rise from humble beginnings to fleeting fame.

In 1958, 16 year old music-loving Richard Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) helps his mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto) on fruit-picking crews in northern California. Richard's always-in-trouble older half-brother Bob (Esai Morales) reappears after a stint in prison, and quickly claims Richard's crush Rosie (Elizabeth Peña) as his own before resuming his drug peddling activities. 

But Bob does provide the money for Connie and Richard to settle in Los Angeles, and at high school Richard is infatuated with classmate Donna (Danielle von Zerneck). He joins local garage band The Silhouettes, but his charisma, confidence, and guitar talent set him apart. President of Del-Fi records Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) spots Richard at a solo show and invites him to a studio recording. Several hits follow under the name Ritchie Valens, but tragedy awaits the burgeoning star.

From obscurity to the cusp of superstardom, the story of Ritchie Valens spanned a mere eight months. Writer and director Luis Valdez does his subject justice, but also expands the biography into a story of two brothers, Bob featuring heavily and sometimes threatening to dominate. With Esai Morales unforgettable as the black sheep of the family oscillating between supporting his brother and envying his talent and success, the combustible Bob provides a stark contrast to the exemplary Ritchie, and becomes the film's second pillar.

As for Ritchie's journey, La Bamba traces three arcs. His obsession with a death-in-the-sky is a prominent theme, the young teenager haunted by a bizarre aviation tragedy that claimed a childhood friend. Ritchie's infatuation with classmate Donna despite her obstructionist father is a key source of inspiration for a famous hit. And finally the drive for success is fuelled by the enduring bond of love and support between mother and son.

In his first notable screen performance, Lou Diamond Phillips bursts onto the cinematic scene to bring Ritchie to life in a performance full of laid-back charisma, self-confidence and star-power, but also overarching humility.

With Los Lobos performing the key tunes and Carlos Santana contributing to the sountrack, Valdez judiciously weaves in the music, Valens' three most famous hits appropriately receiving the most prominence. Come On, Let's Go reveals the rigours of a first studio recording for a budding artist, while Donna laments a seemingly impossible love and is appropriately delivered from a cramped payphone. Title track La Bamba is the showstopper, announcing the full potential of rock 'n' roll to transform music into a source of unconstrained energy for the suddenly blossoming Baby Boomers.

Ritchie Valens streaked across the musical skies for a brief but bright moment, and La Bamba is a worthy, toe-tapping tribute.

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