Today, for Hispanic Heritage Month, we celebrate Luis Valdez's famous biopic from 1987, "La Bamba." The music drama covers the short life of rock legend Ritchie Valens. On February 3, 1959, while on tour and at the height of his career, Valens, along with Buddy Holly and the "Big Bopper" J.P. Richardson, died in a plane crash. This event shook the world. Years later singer/songwriter Don McLean memorialized it as "The Day the Music Died."
"La Bamba" is as much a story about the Valenzuelas as it is about Ritchie himself. Family matriarch Connie (Rosanna DeSoto) is doing her best to provide for her family. Troubled half-brother Ricardo, a/k/a Bob (Esai Morales), comes home after a stint in jail. And young Ritchie (Lou Diamond Phillips) sleeps with a guitar in hand. He also has recurring nightmares about a friend that died when a plane came crashing down on him.
Ritchie may have those nightmares, but that doesn't stop his dream of becoming a rock and roll star. Not long after Bob provides ill-attained money that gets his family to the L.A. suburbs, Ritchie joins a garage band, the Silhouettes. It's clear Ritchie has all the talent to take the band to new heights. But jealousy from the frontman holds them back. Also green with envy is Bob. No matter how hard he tries, Bob doesn't have the luck and believes he doesn't have the support. These feelings feed into his rage as he lets relationships slip away.
As Ritchie makes waves in the local music scene, the new girl in school, Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), sparks his attention. Their feelings are mutual, even if Donna's dad disapproves.
Upset with Ritchie's treatment in the Silhouettes, Connie books him a gig at a local bar. In a great call-back to a similar scene in "The Buddy Holly Story" – and a foreshadowing of what's to come – Ritchie wins over the hostile crowd with a rousing rendition of Buddy Holly's new hit "Oh Boy!"
With the solo gig a success, Ritchie is now riding high. Bob wants in on the fame and fortune too as his drummer. But Ritchie thinks his half-brother is better served at home than by his side.
Connie takes over as manager and books him and the Silhouettes another gig. This time at the American Legion. The Silhouettes' frontman leaves, thinking they have no chance of performing there. The rest of the band stays. Ritchie is now in his rightful place in the lead, and he and his band bring down the house. There that night is not only muse Donna but also Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), owner of Del-Fi Records. It's not long, however, until Ritchie's half-brother Bob shows up, drunk and ready to fight.
Despite how the gig turned out, an impressed Keane tracks Ritchie down and offers him his first shot at recording a single. The song "C'mon Let's Go" gets airplay, as does follow-up single "Donna" and its B-side, the Mexican folk tune "La Bamba." Ritchie's fear of flying holds him back from taking these hits on the road. But a little vodka helps calm some nerves as he heads to Philly to perform "La Bamba" on "American Bandstand."
As Ritchie's star rises, so too does his touring responsibilities, which keeps him away from the people that matter the most -- his family and Donna. For Ritchie, money and fame were never the goals, as much as getting his mother the house she always wanted. His putting family first was something half-brother Bob never understood. Still, though, a job is a job. So Ritchie takes that ill-fated Winter Dance Party gig, touring with a bunch of hot stars across the cold midwest.
Hispanic Heritage Month Connections
The story of Ritchie Valens is a tragic one. He was a rising star on the verge of doing amazing things, not only for his place in rock music but for Hispanic heritage in general. Valens wore it on his sleeve. His turning a Spanish language song into a popular rock tune was a bold statement in 1958.
The plane crash that resulted in the deaths of Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper still stands as one of the most shocking moments in modern history. A world denied of Holly is something we've heard a lot about, given his influence on many artists to follow like the Beatles. Don McClean's "American Pie" spends the whole opening stanza on Holly's death and its effect on his fans and the music. But Valens could have been a Mexican-American Elvis. It's sad to think how much talent was lost on that plane.
The success of the movie rejuvenated Valens' legacy. The artist became credited for writing a Number One single in 1987 when Los Lobos took their version of "La Bamba" to the top of the Billboard charts. In 2001, Valens was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Why You Should See It
"La Bamba" is a prime showcase for its star Lou Diamond Phillips. While his performance was well-received by critics at the time, Phillips was overlooked by the major awards. Still, "La Bamba" is a rousing look at the birth of a legendary rock and roll icon. It soars with Phillips in the lead, Esai Morales in support as Ritchie's hapless half-brother, and Rosanna DeSoto as Ritchie's supportive mother. Yes, all the biopic tropes are there (mainly with Morales' Bob). But "La Bamba" came out before the biopic became all too formulaic.
Did You Know
Nearly ten years before the release of "La Bamba," Gary Busey received an Academy Award for his portrayal of Buddy Holly in the biopic "The Buddy Holly Story." The movie covers the same events -- the Winter Dance Party tour and the plane crash that resulted in "the day the music died." "La Bamba," however, is more factually accurate about the events. This includes why the bus broke down and the fateful coin toss that got the three on the plane.
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.