LA BAMBA was a crowd-pleaser hit in 1987, the bio of late 50s rock & roll legend Ritchie Valens winning plaudits for its fresh and energetic cast and rewarding the $6,500,000 production with a box office harvest of $54,215,000. “Una poca de gracia…”
Southern California, the late 1950s. Connie Valenzuela’s two sons, teenage Ritchie and slightly older Roberto, are different as night & day. Ritchie is sweet-natured and responsible, Bob is a careless hellraiser. Ritchie’s musical talent, the right timing and some good luck bring him fame through rock & roll, while Bob’s jealousy and volatile nature wreaks continual havoc. Destiny plays out.
Directed & written by Luis Valdez, with the full cooperation of Ritchie’s family, the movie hews to the facts pretty well (better than the enjoyable The Buddy Holly Story, the 1978 Gary Busey hit: people tend to lump them together) though it still feels a bit forced (or pre-ordained) at times. Besides the obvious charm of the classic oldies belted out as a matter of course during the story, what gives the movie real juice is the casting of Lou Diamond Phillips as the tragedy-bound teen idol and Esai Morales as his screw-up brother. Phillips had been in bit parts in a few movies, but was “introduced” here. Morales likewise had just a few prior credits, but had made a definite impression in 1983s Bad Boys.
By all accounts, Ritchie was the real deal, a good kid, and Phillips aces the charm and vitality. Older brother Bob apparently mellowed later in life (he died in 2018, age 81, outliving his kid brother by not quite six decades) but as presented in the movie he was an Asshole of The First Degree, and Morales delivers with a kind of pathetic ferocity: it’s a task to make a reprehensible character come over with a degree of sympathy.
Valens’ songs were performed by Los Lobos, with bass player David Hidalgo singing for Phillips. Can’t beat the tunes.
With Rosanna DeSoto (Connie), Elizabeth Pena (Bob’s abused wife Rosie), Joe Pantoliano (nice to see him as a good guy for once, as manager Bob Keane, who ‘found’ Ritchie), Danielle von Zerneck (as Donna Ludwig, the teen-love inspiration for Valens hit “Donna”), Rick Dees (as iconic DJ Ted Quillin), Marshall Crenshaw (as Buddy Holly), Brian Setzer (as Eddie Cochran), Howard Huntsberry (as Jackie Wilson) and Stephen Lee (as The Big Bopper). 108 minutes.