Thursday, June 20, 2013

La Bamba (1987)

Director: Luis Valdez                                    Writer: Luis Valdez
Film Score: Miles Goodman                          Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto and Joe Pantoliano

It was really The Buddy Holly Story that paved the way for rock ‘n’ roll biopics like Great Balls of Fire, What’s Love Got To Do With It, Ray and, of course, La Bamba. This is the story of Ritchie Valens, who became a huge star in the late fifties. His biggest hit was the title of the film, but he tragically died in the same plane crash that claimed the lives of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Buddy Holly. I don’t know if it’s interesting, per se, but the film seems to be just as much about Valens’ step-brother Bob Morales. In fact, the opening has Ritchie’s family picking fruit in Northern California and Bob riding in on his motorcycle and stealing away his girl. Of course, that never happened, but like The Buddy Holly Story, the dramatic license sets up the rest of the story.

Lou Diamond Phillips plays Valens and does a good job, except for his guitar playing which looks as a bit phony onscreen. He’s also taller and thinner than the real Valens, but fortunately doesn’t attempt a literal translation the way that Gary Busy did with Holly. The primary conflicts are, first, with Esai Morales as Bob, who gradually begins to feel that Phillips’ success is overshadowing his life. He drinks, does drugs, and generally abuses Elizabeth Peña, the girl he stole away from Phillips. Secondly, when Phillips falls in love with Danielle von Zerneck as Donna, a white girl whose father doesn’t want her to see him, he has to face the racism inherent in this country against Hispanics. The third, and most minor conflict, is with the great Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keane, whose methods of recording and grueling touring schedules Phillips doesn’t like.

One of the artistic choices in the film by writer-director Luis Valdez is to have Phillips dreaming of an airplane crash in a ham-handed attempt at foreshadowing. In retrospect it seems entirely unnecessary, especially given the well-known circumstances surrounding Valens’ death. Also, at times, Morales really takes over the film, and not in a good way. Perhaps, however, it replicates the destructive nature of the actual relationship between them. The longer the triangle is played out, however, the less interesting it becomes, at least cinematically. With Morales getting just as much screen time as Phillips--and chewing the scenery when they’re onscreen together--it takes away from the main story of Valens’ mercurial rise to fame.

The music and vocals, provided by Los Lobos, are very good, however, and when the film focuses on that aspect of his life, it’s incredibly good. Phillips is electrifying as Valens and his infectious portrayal lights up the screen. Pantoliano, after a turn as a nebbish pianist in The Idolmaker, steps up to fledgling record producer and provides a great undercurrent of exploitation that gives the part needed realism. Unfortunately there are too many soap opera moments that detract from that. Unless something else comes along, however, this is the definitive biopic of Ritchie Valens. La Bamba, despite its flaws, is a wonderful homage to a musical star whose life and career ended much too soon.

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