In the grand scheme of music history Richie Valens, or Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) was a minor figure in music history, and his biggest claim to fame is that he died in the same plane crash that took the life of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, but his story is such a great little slice of the American dream that it makes for great cinema.
This movie opens, and is frequently interrupted by apocalyptic visions of death via a falling plane that puts a cloud of gloom over the entire movie.
That feeling of impending tragedy colors what otherwise would basically be a Latino version of “That Thing You Do!” as we watch young Valens join a local band, then get noticed by a local record producer (Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keene) for whom he records his only big hits including the title track of the movie and the sentimental ballad “Donna”.
The girl that song is named after is a blonde “Girl Next Door” type that Richie falls in love with but whose father of course objects because of Valens being Latino and his shady “Rock N’ Roll” persona.
The other big factor in this movie is Valen’s brother Bob with whom he has an explosive but loving on again off again relationship. Bob (Esai Morales) is more of a father than a brother, and his scenes with young Richie provide the film with some of its greatest conflict and grit.
This movie is filled with great music and heartwarming (and wrenching) moments. It is a great tribute to a life that was over before it really had a chance to begin, at only 17 years of age (this movie is now older than Valens lived to be by nearly a decade)…
This was another childhood favorite of yours truly, and one that still holds up very well.
La Bamba gets a four out of five: GREAT