Directed by Luis Valdez (1987) Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosana de Soto, Joe Pantoliano, Elizabeth Pena, Danielle von Zernek
La Bamba tells the story of Ritchie Valens (Phillips) who quickly rose to fame while he was still in high school. The film focuses on Valens’s life in poverty to his relationship with his brother as it tracks his success in the music industry, before he was killed in a plane accident.
As a biopic, the film works well with balancing between Ritchie’s personal life and the start of his career. Much of his emotional conflict comes from his relationship with his brother Bob (Morales), who is introduced as the “bad brother”, recently released from prison, who steals Ritchie’s initial love interest, Rosie (Pena). While Bob comes out as supportive of his brother’s career, he also feels the sting of being the overlooked-sibling in the family.
One character could have been left out entirely, except that she was the inspiration for one of Valens’s singles. Donna (von Zernek) was played as a flat, 1950s-era stereotype teenager with the required racist father. She comes off simpering in some moments, shallow in the next. It’s a big contrast to Phillips’ earnestness as Valens.
Another irritating quirk of the film was a repetitive nightmare sequence that Valens has. It’s used to reinforce that he will, eventually, come to die in a plane accident, but it’s inserted so frequently that, combined with dialogue with his manager over his fear of flying, that it reduces the effect.
As for the stuff biopics are made of, Ritchie Valens story is so-so. I hate saying then, when it’s based off of a life story, but… yeah. While he came from an unlikely background for fame, after getting approached by a record deal, his rise is very straightforward. Even when he wants to make “La Bamba” one of his singles and his manager tells him it’s too controversial, that’s where the controversy leaves off. The key drama comes from Ritchie’s conflicts with Bob, exacerbated by Bob’s alcohol problems.
Pretty much a ‘meh.’ It wasn’t a waste of time, but it wasn’t the best use of it either.