La Bamba (1987)

22 Jan


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“La Bamba” tells the story of late rock star Ritchie Valens, who at the age of seventeen and in the time span of six months, had three hit songs that made him famous and a declared rock-n-roll sensation. And because that isn’t quite enough material for a biopic such as this, most of the events that took place in the lives of Ritchie and his family are stretched out for the film, mostly to effective results.

In the 1950s, Ritchie Valens (whose real surname was Valenzuela) was a Mexican-American who was raised in migrant labor camps in Northern California, idolized his older, motorcycle-riding half-brother, and had a deep admiration for his music. When he moved to a suburb in Southern California, along with his mother and siblings, he performed wherever he could until he finally got himself noticed by more and more people to become something special.

I guess you could consider “La Bamba” to be a follow-up to the great “The Buddy Holly Story,” which told the events of rock star Buddy Holly, because Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens on February 3, 1959. That day was described as “the day the music died.” Maybe it didn’t die, but it was a dreadful event for all three individuals. It was all the more tragic, in that Ritchie was only seventeen years old when he died.

So how does “La Bamba” fare out, telling the story of Ritchie Valens this time? Well, just fine.

What problems do I have with “La Bamba,” which is otherwise a sweet-natured feel-good movie about a kid following his dreams and becoming famous for his music? Well, there are two issues I have with this movie, and unfortunately, they are major. For one thing, adding that Ritchie has nightmares about plane crashes, thus increasing his fear of flying, makes it kind of sick, considering that we know that Ritchie Valens (along with Buddy Holly and Big Bopper) died in a plane crash. When Ritchie takes that fateful trip, he seems relaxed over his fear by now. Why was this necessary?

The other problem I have is with the music. I mean, the music sounds nice—of course, they’re memorable tunes by Ritchie Valens (“Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and of course, “La Bamba”). But the real issue with the musical performances in this movie is that I really didn’t believe that what I saw on screen was actually being performed. It was just so obvious that the performances were overdubbed, which I realize must be done in movies like this. But the trick is to hide the fact that the music is being dubbed over; “La Bamba” doesn’t succeed. There are some exceptions, though. For example, when Ritchie and Bob visit Tijuana for a night, the folk performing the original “La Bamba” (which inspires Ritchie’s rock-n-roll version) sounds nice and credible. And the concert performing of Ritchie’s “La Bamba” does indeed sound like a genuine concert performance. Other than that, however, I was never convinced I was seeing Ritchie Valens sing or hearing him perform—I just saw actor Lou Diamond Phillips acting like him.

What do I like about “La Bamba?” To tell the truth, I liked the stuff that had nothing to do with the music, particularly the family aspects and conflicts. Ritchie (Lou Diamond Phillips) has help from his hard-working, caring mother Connie (Rosana DeSoto) to get his music career going. She works as his manager for small stuff, like performing at a bar, until Ritchie gets an agent—Bob Keene (Joe Pantoliano), who is a wise-guy type but reliable nonetheless. But then, there’s Ritchie’s rebellious half-brother Bob (Esai Morales). There are times when he is supportive of his younger brother’s fame, but other times when he’s resentful. He becomes a source of certain trouble for the family and Ritchie’s career. There’s also a sweet relationship between Ritchie and his Anglo girlfriend Donna (Danielle von Zernick), whose father don’t approve of Ritchie either because of his race or because of his “jungle music,” which the father calls it. Each of these scenes have a nice sentimental quality to them and they make the movie work, despite its flaws. They give a nice portrait of everyday life and there are good actors playing these roles. Lou Diamond Phillips is appealing as Ritchie, Rosana DeSoto is convincing and winning as the mother, and Esai Morales is excellent as the older brother who both loves and resents his brother. “La Bamba” isn’t the great movie that it could have been, but its sweet, fun moments weigh a little more than the unnecessary parts.


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