“My dreams are pure rock and roll!”
La Bamba is one of those movies I can somehow clearly remember from my youth, despite it not being one of my favorites. Because it was on constant rotation on HBO back in the 80s and because my father was a Ritchie Valens fan, the film played in our house constantly to the point that a handful of scenes have always been able to replay in my head as if I’d just watched them yesterday. Watching La Bamba today with more age and experience under my belt, the movie hits a little differently. What I considered a minor staple from my cinephile youth now played like a slightly campy biopic that was more melodramatic than I remembered, but also more deeply meaningful in ways I didn’t expect.
Director Luis Valdez brought the story of Ritchie Valens to the screen in 1987 with this account-based retelling of how a lower-class Hispanic youth rose to fame with hits such as “Donna,” “Come On, Let’s Go,” and of course, the titular track. Starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens, Esai Morales as his brother Bob, Elizabeth Pena as his sister-in-law Rosie, Danielle Von Zerneck as his high-school sweetheart Donna, and Rosanna DeSoto as his mother Connie, the film tracks the journey of one of the most influential musicians who had ever lived.
It has to be because of all the film knowledge that I’ve soaked up in the decades since La Bamba came out that is responsible for the way it plays today. What hits the most from a cinematic perspective is the shakiness of the movie’s nuance. For every scene that works, there are two more that don’t thanks to a lack of modulation of dramatic levels. Case in point, virtually every scene that shows Richie and Bob’s rocky relationship, specifically the Christmas sequence in which the latter can hold in his jealousy of the former ‘s success no longer. There’s not a lot of grace behind the camera, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t moments which are instantly indelible. The sequence showing the origins of “La Bamba” is a key scene where the film strikes a natural, beautiful chord. By the time the third act rolls around, any shortcomings are more or less forgiven thanks to the powerful way Valdez shoots the fateful moments leading up to Richie’s death and his family being delivered the news.
Where La Bamba succeeds the most is in the area of identity. The movie’s chronicling of Valens’ life is done at such a breakneck pace and with not enough of the kind of finesse it deserves. Yet the film still manages to make an upfront comment on the Mexican-American experience that, unlike most of the movie, is wisely left alone and allowed to play out subtly. The scene where “La Bamba” is born (at least, the version as we know it today) is a highlight, especially in seeing how emblematic it was of Valens’ own experience as someone living in two cultures. When we see him perform the song in front of an audience, bringing them to their feet, it becomes obvious that he’s the only one who could have made that happen. It’s so easy all these years later to overlook how revolutionary that song was. Yet watching Richie lay down the vocals in the recording booth, we watch him find his sound, and in a sense, himself. It’s a telling and poignant moment for anyone who has ever carried two cultures side by side.
Valdez’s directing career never achieved higher heights than it did with La Bamba, despite some notable highlights. The filmmaker’s adaptation of the musical Zoot Suit is an eternally electric experience. But La Bamba remains his crowning achievement. In 2017, the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress selected the film for inclusion in its long list of titles which have come to represent the best of cinema. According to the registry, the films selected are chosen because they are “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” which describes La Bamba perfectly. It’s unfortunate that the movie is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. But the parts that soar do so with gusto, heart, and the kind of “ganas” that made Valens both an innovator and an icon.
La Bamba is now available on Blu-ray and DVD as part of The Criterion Collection.