Director: Luis Valdez
Cast: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto
Run Time: 1 hour 48 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13
I don't really like biopics. Human lives are messy. Good things happen, bad things happen, and then you die. There's no narrative there. It's not particularly interesting, no matter how monolithic a public figure you happen to be.
Of course, Hollywood is keenly aware of this. That's why they love to punch these things up with long lost loves, criminal subterfuge, and various nefarious, melodramatic doings. Is your Zayn Malik biopic not turning out the way you want it to? Toss in a cancer-riddled BFF. Maybe a hot air balloon chase. And boom. Box office gold.
1987's La Bamba is perhaps the only biopic in the world that refrains from indulging in these excesses. The story of Ritchie Valens, tragically concise as it is, turns out to be near-perfect fodder for the sickly format. It's short, sweet, simple, and sincere. While it's still beholden to the meandering weaknesses of the genre, the source material is uniquely tailored to the world of cinema.
This is gonna be one of those sad reviews, isn't it?
La Bamba covers a very short period of the life of Richard Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips), beginning with his move to the San Fernando Valley in 1957 and concluding with his devastatingly early death in a plane crash two years later. As he rockets to superstardom at 16 years old, he struggles to balance his Mexican heritage and his American identity, bouncing between his jealous alcoholic half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), his privileged white girlfriend Donna (Danielle von Zerneck), and his loving mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto).
After he joins a garage band called The Silhouettes, his talents are discovered by Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) of Del-Fi Records, who signs him more or less immediately as a solo act. After a series of singles make it big, he sock hops all the way to the bank, providing a good home for his beloved mom and just generally being a saintly, angelic person. It's very Pollyanna, but if there's ever someone worth airbrushing and idealizing, it's a dead minor, I suppose.
Donna's not worth the trouble, though. She's kind of a dick.
The story of La Bamba is more myth than biography, reducing the Valens story into broad brush strokes to create a fablistic tale about passion, family, love, loss, and culture. In doing so, the film necessarily becomes a little bit shallow, but the surface-level plot and themes are functional and slick.
It's a shame that some key moments (Ritchie agreeing to change his name, or making the fateful decision to incorporate the Mexican folk song La Bamba into his discography) are left by the wayside in a plot that assumes you already know these stories and don't care to hear them again, but for the most part La Bamba is a rollicking soap bubble about a young boy's triumph and his legacy: the tentative prods at acceptance between the Caucasian and Chicano communities of Southern California.
The film is most important as a piece following the lives and losses of the minority community in the Valley. Directed and written by Luis Valdez, a prominent figure in the Chicano theater movement, La Bamba thrums with energy during the scenes that more explicitly explore racial interactions. As Ritchie (a fully American teen who doesn't speak a word of Spanish) learns that he will never be perceived that way because of the color of his skin and begins to embrace his ancestral culture, the screen comes alive with passion and color.
In fact, the parts of the film that depict his meteoric rise to fame could hardly be more perfunctory. Only one moment - Ritchie's first recording session - truly captures the same effervescence and humor that is brought to the scenes of Ritchie's everyday life and internal struggle. By removing nearly all of the iconography from such an iconic figure, Valdez finds the human truth beneath the gloss.
The human brain beneath the perfect hair, so to speak.
Listening to film students talk all day really changes your perspective on what makes a good metaphor.
So La Bamba has heart, a talented and committed cast (especially DeSoto and the newbie Phillips in his first feature role), and a director who knows what to do with the material to make it unique. It's an essential watch in the history of Chicano cinema, and it's an enjoyable rock 'n roll fairy tale to boot. I can't really complain about that.
This was made in the late 80's, after all, so there are some patently cheesy moments (the final shot, for one thing, and the alarming percentage of The Big Bopper's dialogue that's just "Helloooooo, baybay!") as well as an unnerving fixation on foreshadowing the inevitable plane crash, but all in all La Bamba is a treat.
It's a biopic that ignores the superficial traditions of the genre, and it's a humanistic fable about finding oneself in the midst of success. It's not complex, but it doesn't need to be. And it's a nostalgic, glowing assessment of one of rock 'n roll's most tragic figures that focuses on his joys and successes rather than the melodrama. I can't think of any way to make the film more rewarding than that.
TL;DR: La Bamba is probably the best of a bad genre, and an excellent account of Mexican-American life in the 1950's.
Rating: 7/10Word Count: 913