Where rock and roll and passion meet, you can find Chicano legend Ritchie Valens waiting. At this intersection and cherished sanctuary is music. “La Bamba” (1987)underscores how Valens defined the boisterous melody of his teenage heartthrob mind in a heartfelt biopic that touches on all aspects of the singer’s short-lived yet plentiful music career.
The film opens with a hazy black-and-white sequence that feels like entering an intimate memory. A rowdy basketball match between a group of boys takes place with a beachy score accompanying the game. Suddenly, a plane soars over the court and explodes midair, causing a thunderous bang and waking our protagonist from this disorienting nightmare.
Awakened by a combination of fear and his mother’s clamoring to get up, we follow Mexican-American Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) going through the motions of his early teenage years, laboring as a farm worker in Northern California.
Valens comports himself with a unique charm and charisma. His affectionate personality shines through the film’s first encounter with his half-brother, Bob Morales (Esai Morales). Phillips lends a nurturing quality to the rock and roll star. Focalized by Phillips, we cherish Valens for his naïveté, passion and confidence.
Viewers’ attention fixes on the eyes of the Chicano teenager watching his free-spirit of a brother riding a motorcycle, approaching from the opposite side of the farming camps. The siblings’ devotion to one another is evident in the embrace they soon share.
Through the brothers’ reunion at the start of the film, the script foregrounds the story’s central message: the importance of treasuring family, specifically siblings.
While whisking a dash of jealousy, protection and discord, the lead actors prepare an authentic depiction of a brotherhood that highlights the dynamism of sibling relationships. They flawlessly exude this message through their on-screen chemistry and realistic portrayal of the dysfunctional relationship between Ritchie and Bob.
Morales’ incarnation of Bob especially highlights the nature of sibling rivalry through his palpable envy of Valens’ musical genius. Morales’ covetous temper is not over the top: instead, his performance concocts a brilliant balance between the extremes of drunken fury and genuine protection of Valens.
Following the reunion, the family moves to Southern California in hopes of writing a noteworthy narrative for themselves rather than what could have been documented from their previous lifestyle. We follow Valens as he attends San Fernando High School. Ever self-assured, he walks down the halls carrying his beloved guitar, emulating a child and their favorite toy.
It’s not long before Valens ventures throughout the San Fernando Valley, hoping to land promising career opportunities to ensure his artistic brilliance shines. Even when his first official musical gig offers no space for him to be center stage, Valens persists. After this first job, with the old scraps of a guitar aux and original lyrics, Valens hones his craft through tireless songwriting sessions and self-taught guitar lessons.
Sound mixing becomes crucial in a film about a musical star. In “La Bamba,” music is integrated in a way that doesn’t feel gratuitous. It is only used when necessary, such as when Valens sings on stage, records his first single or hears his music on the radio for the first time. There is no background score besides the first and final shots — it’s just pure dialogue. As marked in the film’s climax during the heated argument between Valens and Morales, the empty atmosphere drives the film’s most vital scenes to the focal point. In a way, this emphasizes the movie’s narrative and message by only interweaving music when vital to prevent distractions for viewers.
Despite the hurdles he faces, Valens triumphs on this journey to stardom, where he wins his audience’s hearts and catches the eye of a record producer by arranging a solo event at a nearby movie theater. This experience introduces him to his manager, Bob Keane, and the two never look back.
Though his career only lasted about eight months before it was tragically cut short, hits such as “We Belong Together,” “Come On, Let’s Go,” and, of course, “La Bamba” earned Valens a spot in the hall of rock and roll legends. With this in mind, it can be concluded that for Valens, music lent purpose to the disorientation of his life. The medium —music — was his muse.