In a life that lasted just 17 years, Ritchie Valens lived the American dream. A Mexican-American from California, Valens exploded out of poverty with a driving rock sound that resulted in three hit records before the dream became a nightmare in the most famous plane crash in music history.
The crash in Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959 took the lives of Valens, Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, 'The Big Bopper.'
The story of Valens is irresistible both for its uplifting and melancholy message. And the movie 'La Bamba,' written and directed by Luis Valdez ('Zoot Suit') and starring Lou Diamond Phillips as Valens and Esai Morales as his half-brother, takes advantage of both opportunities.
But it is not the reverential tone or the meteoric events in the life of a teenage idol that make this a worthwhile movie.
This is a movie about music and it is the Valens sound, a unique blending of Latin rhythm and rock beat, that prevents 'La Bamba' from being just another example of Hollywood hero worship.
With the hot Los Angeles band Los Lobos providing the sound track, the heat and drive of the sound comes across just as fresh in 1987 as it was in 1959.
Phillips plays Valens with the perfect innocence required of saints, but director and screenwriter Valdez -- after much consultation with the young star's family -- wisely refused to completely canonize the singer. And, also to the filmmaker's credit, his wild half-brother provides a balance to the success of Valens.
This brother also had talent, but for him the American dream was far more elusive and the talent never overcame his sense of being second-best and unloved.
That's not to say this film biography is not heavy-handed in several aspects -- the most glaring of which are the several references to Valens's premonitions about his death in an airplane crash. It was, after all, Buddy Holly who articulated the premonitions about the crash.
Indeed, comparisons between 'La Bamba' and the 1978 film, 'The Buddy Holly Story,' are inevitable. Both Holly and Valens were poor kids inspired by the love of the rock beat. Both movie biographies relied on the cooperation of surviving loved ones; perhaps that's why 'La Bamba' seems to have a richer texture.
'The Buddy Holly Story' was criticized for the sanitized version of the star's life because his widow took such a strong role in its production. In the case of 'La Bamba,' there are enough demons to offset the saints, and Valens's mother, as played by Rosana De Soto, and his brother -- neither in any sense perfect or saintly -- provide rich scenes.
Nevertheless, on its own, the good-bad brother theme and that of a stage mother would not carry this movie any higher than an episode of the soap 'Santa Barbara.' It's the music of the 1950s, the driving rock 'n' roll that blasted out of car radios and from televisions tuned to 'American Bandstand' that makes 'La Bamba' a memorable film, just as the music is what was most memorable from 'The Buddy Holly Story.'
Ritchie Valens had just three hits when he died -- 'Come On, Let's Go,' 'Donna,' and 'La Bamba.' But it was a repertoire strong enough to make Valens a venerable member of the rock pantheon of dead heros.
This movie is rated PG-13.