For this month’s first review for Genre Grandeur – Latin Directors, here’s a review of La Bamba by S.G. Liput from Rhyme and Reason.
Thanks again to Anna of Film Grimoire for choosing this month’s genre.
Next month’s Genre has been chosen by James of Back to the Viewer. We will be reviewing our favorite movies featuring a dystopian world (past or future). Please get me your submissions by 25th April by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org Try to think out of the box! Great choice James!
Let’s see what S.G. thought of this movie
(Can be sung to the title song)
Rock-n-roll was still teenage,
In its growing and green stage,
And so was too, Richie (then) Valenzuela,
Who was keen to unveil a music forte,
For his passionate family.
They supported him gladly,
Though brother Bob
Was thought of less
For his success.
With his hits, Ritchie Valens
Drank up fame by the gallons.
The nation knew
This favored son
Had just begun.
While out touring,
While yet soaring,
Stars still cherished
Written and directed by Chicano filmmaker Luis Valdez with the full support of Ritchie Valens’ family members, La Bamba is one of my favorite biopics. I don’t know how I forgot it for my list, but thanks to MovieRob and Anna of Film Grimoire for bringing it to mind with this latest Genre Grandeur.
How many people have produced three top 100 hits and warranted a biographical film, all before hitting the age of eighteen? Only one that I know of. As the filmmakers have stated, Ricardo Valenzuela was a true rags-to-riches success story, starting off in an indigent family among migrant workers yet confident enough in his own abilities to foresee his eventual success. Lou Diamond Phillips found his first role here as the earnest Ritchie and captures the star’s onstage charisma and musical passion while remaining a sometimes awkward teen of the 1950s. He makes Ritchie entirely likable, in sharp contrast to his self-destructive half-brother Bob Morales, played with mustached gusto by Esai Morales. Bob is not without talent of his own, but he constantly makes poor decisions whether through jealousy or drunkenness; while clean-cut Ritchie represents Chicano culture at its best as he strives to improve his family’s situation, Bob typifies the opposite, running drugs and constantly mistreating his lonely inamorata (Elizabeth Peña, who died just months ago). Nonetheless, their brotherly bond can withstand even the worst disagreements, and one can’t help but sympathize with both of them. Rosanna DeSoto as Ritchie’s mother always draws a tear from my mom in her final scene, and Joe Pantoliano is almost unrecognizable playing a non-scuzzball, music producer Bob Keene.
In addition to being a potent family drama, La Bamba is also an homage to the music of the era and was unique in casting modern-day rock stars to pay tribute to their musical predecessors. Brian Setzer of Stray Cats performs as Eddie Cochran, while Howard Huntsberry gives an amazing impression of Jackie Wilson’s “Lonely Teardrops.” The uber-talented group Los Lobos performs all of Valens’ songs, while Phillips merely lip-syncs, but the two are both so ideal that the result is almost as convincing as watching Valens himself. Particularly fun is the title song “La Bamba,” one of the first American hits sung in Spanish and a ground-breaking testament to Valens’ Hispanic heritage, which was glossed over at every chance back then, as evidenced by his changed stage name (Richie Valenzuela to Ritchie Valens).
Toward the end, everything seems to be so perfect that, even when we the audience recognize the approach of “The Day the Music Died,” it’s easy to understand how sudden and traumatic it was for his friends and family. The film foreshadows the sad day with flashbacks to a prior plane crash in Valens’ past and his subsequent fear of flying. One can only wonder how much more he could have accomplished, if it weren’t for some bad weather and a sour coin toss. The film ends on a necessarily mournful note that might have been aided by some kind of what-happened-next descriptions of the fates of his family and high school sweetheart Donna.
The early rockers of the 1950s have unfortunately faded into the background of musical history, overshadowed by Elvis and the rise of supergroups like the Beatles. Yet artists like Ritchie Valens served to lay the foundation of rock and roll and should never be forgotten, nor should films like La Bamba, which remain heartfelt tributes to their talents.
Best line: (Ritchie, speaking with sad irony) “My mom reckons I’m going to be a star. And stars don’t fall from the sky.”
© 2015 S. G. Liput
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