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Coming nine years after the impressive The Buddy Holly Story, Luis Valdez' La Bamba tells the story of Ricky Valenzuela, who as Ritchie Valens put his mark on Rock 'n' Roll with a career that lasted less than one year. Buddy Holly's three years of busy activity generated a much larger and valued body of songs, while Valens had only eight months to generate three hit records. Yet Valens is remembered for more than just his shared demise with Holly -- he was the first Mexican-American to make a mark in Rock 'n' Roll, and he didn't have to leave his cultural identity behind. His big hit song La Bamba not only 'crossed over' but remains one of the most-played songs from the 1950s.
The movie launched the career of Lou Diamond Phillips, who is actually of mixed American and Philippine descent; Phillips captures perfectly the image of a late- 50's L.A. chicano of high style. La Bamba is unusual in that it examines the Mexican-American experience and does not focus on crime or discrimination. Writer-director Luis Valdez infuses the film with cultural authenticity and honesty.
Sixteen year-old Ricardo Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) moves with his widowed mother Connie (Rosana De Soto) to Los Angeles' San Fernando Valley, and concentrates on his love of Rock 'n' Roll music. As a second-generation American he writes, sings and plays guitar in an American style -- and he's not fluent in Spanish. The music carries him forward through family difficulties. His half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales) has served time in jail after Connie turned him. Bob rides a motorcycle to transport Marijuana across the border. He steals Ricky's girlfriend Rosie (Elizabeth Peña) and shacks up with her without marriage. Everything goes right for Ricky when he turns seventeen. Connie encourages his singing, and he attracts a band of his own. He forms a crush on Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), a blond Anglo classmate who doesn't care that her father forbids her to see him. And he's 'discovered' by Del-Fi record producer Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), who shows him how to record professionally and changes his name to Ritchie Valens. Ritchie flies to Philadelphia for American Bandstand and becomes a nationwide hit. Bob's jealous and destructive outbursts create more problems. Ritchie has a new car and is able to buy his mother a new house. He's a levelheaded kid who knows what he wants, and the future looks great.
Most viewers don't know that the movie La Bamba was written and directed by Luis Valdez, the son of farm workers who became a noted playwright and activist for pro-union causes. His play Zoot Suit introduced Edward James Olmos and the subsequent film version is his only other theatrical film as director. As La Bamba is not a political film Valdez is able to present an image of the Mexican-American underclass in a non-confrontational context. Young Ricky has a big heart but also strong support from his mother; his brother's difficulties lie more in personality than social disadvantage. Valdez isn't afraid to show Bob Morales selling grass and taking Ricky on a trip to a low-life Tijuana brothel. He's a lout who mistreats his common-law wife and terrorizes the family with his drunken outbursts. But he's also a frustrated artist lacking with the personal tools to develop his talent.
Valdez communicates the strong ties that hold Mexican-American families together. Connie Valenzuela is a particularly nurturing mother who raises kids, works as a waitress and supports and encourages Ricky's ambitions. It doesn't hurt that Ricky is positively motivated. When the producer talks him into abandoning his band to pursue a solo career, he knows instantly why he must agree -- he's doing it for his family. We're told that Valdez elicited full cooperation from the Valenzuela family. The real Connie Valenzuela appears in one scene.
It's good that the movie has this rich background to develop because Valens' stellar career was a flash that lasted only a few months. The Buddy Holly Story had a broader narrative to explore and as such was able to allow the violent finish sneak up on the audience. Writer-director Valdez instead foreshadows The Day The Music Died by salting Valens' fear of flying into the story, and by returning two or three times to his vivid airplane-related nightmare. Even more than Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens' sudden disappearance is a shocking life lesson without a reassuring moral: people dear to us can just vanish at any time. Obviously the family focus, Ritchie had taken just two or three steps into a very promising future when it all ended.
The acting is remarkable, with Esai Morales and Rosanna DeSoto creating the richest characterizations. Lou Diamond Phillips is a charismatic and sweet Ritchie; we believe it when he commandeers a pay phone to serenade his girlfriend with the song he's written for her. 1 Danielle von Zerneck is a believable white-bread girlfriend, obedient enough to submit to her father's bullying, but only until a car of her own gives her the mobility to see Ritchie when she wants. Joe Pantoliano must be the nicest record producer in musical bio history -- he and Ritchie get along well and their success has a lot to do with personal chemistry.
The then-innovative band Los Lobos does a fine job handling the music for Ritchie Valens, accurately reviving the styles of Valens' three biggest hits. By giving us a taste of the original Mexican song La Bamba Los Lobos show how the Americanized version crosses the culture border. The progressive, dominant R&R guitar is dynamic as only California rock can be. Yet underneath the song is Latin, all the way.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of La Bamba is a clean and vibrant HD transfer of this entertaining musical hit. The audio track is in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Twilight Time's signature Isolated Score Track is accompanied by two audio commentaries. One combines the input of Luis Valdez and his stars Phillips and Esai Morales with producer Stuart Benjamin, and the other gives us producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez, Luis's brother. A trailer is included as well.
Julie Kirgo's liner notes compare Valens and Holly and take time to acknowledge the significance of the crossover hit La Bamba. The film forms something of an unofficial duo with The Buddy Holly Story, itself just released by Twilight Time. Both are excellent musical bios from the oft- exaggerated years of early Rock 'n' Roll.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La Bamba Blu-ray rates:
1. That scene scores a strong emotional reaction. Fans of radio Oldies are already familiar with the song Donna, and suddenly it takes on a more personal meaning...
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T'was Ever Thus.