The Ballard of Ritchie Valens
It's 1987 and the song "La Bamba" was topping the charts, I loved the song but for some reason I never saw the movie "La Bamba", probably the thought of watching a biopic of a dead musician was not my thing. Well nearly 25 years later I finally got around to watching it and there is part of me which now wishes I had watched it as a teenager as "La Bamba" would have been right up my street with a great soundtrack and a vibrant recreation of the rock n roll era.
"La Bamba" is the story of Ricardo Esteban Valenzuela Reyes otherwise known as Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips - Lone Rider) to his fans and his rise to fame as a star with hits such as "Come On, Let's Go", "Donna" and of course "La Bamba". Having grown up with just his mother Connie (Rosanna DeSoto - About Last Night...), troublesome older brother Bob (Esai Morales) and younger siblings, Ritchie always wanted to play his music and after being discovered by Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano - The Goonies) got his chance becoming a huge success. But whilst on a tour with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper they suffer a fatal plane crash killing them all.
Now to be honest before watching "La Bamba" I only knew 2 things about Ritchie Valens, the first of which he was part of the trio who died in that plane crash and the other, well I recognized many of his songs. As such I don't know how factual "La Bamba" is, how true to Ritchie's life it is or how much has been manufactured to make it work as a movie and a tribute to his talent. But I do know that Ritchie's family, his mother Connie and brother Bob helped with the production, they advised the actors on playing parts and as such I would suggest that "La Bamba" stays very close to the truth with maybe a little gloss so that not only it works as a movie but also doesn't show Valens in any sort of bad light.
But the good thing is that you don't need to know the ins and outs of Ritchie Valens life to enjoy "La Bamba" it plays beautifully with not only a natural flow but a wonderful energy. It takes us from life as poor crop pickers, through to the days as a high school student, his initial playing with a band called the Silhouettes through to Ritchie's rise to fame, never dragging its feet in the mundane. At the same time it also focuses on the relationship which Ritchie had with his brother Bob and how Bob felt about his younger brother's success, the jealousy of being his mother's favourite and so on.
As such "La Bamba" focuses as much on the private life of Ritchie as it does on his short but brilliant musical career. We learn about Donna the girl he loved, whose parents disapproved of her dating Ritchie, and who was the inspiration for the song "Donna". The visit to a Mexican settlement where he hears them playing "La Bamba" giving him the idea to do his own version. In fact "La Bamba" is packed full of Ritchie's life before fame that the music side almost takes a back seat, or at least is not as prominent as you would expect. It does at times feel a little manufactured, scenes embellished so they work in a movie but it doesn't really matter because it gives it energy and pace.
But of course a biopic of a musician, someone who has given us some iconic songs, does have those musical moments. And it has to be said they are great, from Ritchie doing a solo gig in a bar, through to the big performance of "La Bamba" and also in the recording studio not a single musical scene ever feels dull. In fact some of them are very touching, especially when Ritchie sings "Donna" down the phone to Donna.
Of course a movie about someone who died so tragically young is going to be emotional and as those final scenes arrive, the level of emotion is cranked up. But strangely it didn't feel like my emotions were being manipulated, rather than because of knowing how Ritchie died those final scenes before the flight had a higher level of poignancy.
For someone who prior to "La Bamba" had not acted in much it has to be said that Lou Diamond Phillips puts in a brilliant performance as Ritchie Valens and not just because at 25 he was playing someone much younger than himself. Phillips manages to get across the enthusiasm for life, the passion for music but also the vulnerability which the storyline requires. In the scenes where young Ritchie impresses the band The Silhouettes the level of energy in Phillips performance is spot on and that level never stops. Phillips may not actually be singing the songs but you wouldn't know that he is being dubbed by David Hidalgo part of the band Los Lobos.
But whilst Lou Diamond Phillips is the star of "La Bamba" special mention has to go to Esai Morales who plays Ritchie's brother Bob Morales. It's such a convincing performance delivering the aspects of a brother who struggles not only with a jealousy over his brother's success but also the perceived favouritism. You get a real sense of the pain he felt, the cause of his drinking and trouble making.
What this all boils down to is that "La Bamba" is a very good movie which works even if you know little about the short life of Ritchie Valens. It has a wonderful energy about it so that whilst it covers both Valens rise to fame as well as his relationship with his brother and also Donna his girlfriend it never seems to have a dull moment. Plus with a brilliant soundtrack and top performances from Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales it is a very watch able movie.