Film Discussion

La Bamba (1987) – Music in the Movies

Music and movies have frequently gone together. While cinema loves a good musical, often musicians have tried to make the move to the silver screen, and cinematic stories themselves have tried to capture the life of a musician through works of fiction or Oscar-calibre biopics. For Music in the Movies, Set the Tape will explore musical biopics, the mixed successes of attempts to make musicians movie stars, and tales that revel in the wonder of music and lyrics.

La Bamba opens with a sequence captured in grainy film stock of two aeroplanes colliding in mid-air. Given that the film’s main character, Ritchie Valens, died in a plane crash, there is a danger that opening in such a way could be in poor taste.

It isn’t. Life is not without ironies and Valens, real name Richard Valenzuela, is depicted in the film haunted by the death of a school friend caused from falling debris that came from such an incident.

If it this were a fictional film, you would laugh it off as being dramatically contrived, and yet so much of Luis Valdez’s film works because of the spectre of loss hovering around the edges of its story, of something so sadly tragic that the film has no choice but to build up to it because of the real-life story it’s depicting.

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In terms of narrative conventions, La Bamba has nothing too new or original to offer in relation to the musical biopic genre. It very much is, in some respects, a nuts-and-bolts film that follows the life story of a brilliant musical talent that was ended too soon. The film charts Valens’ life from migrant farmer to first love, his complex relationship with his brother, right through to being discovered, a star who shone too brightly for too short a period.

It takes a hard heart that is familiar with the story and the film not to feel a sense of dread and sadness when Buddy Holly shows up for the final ten minutes of the film. Not that it’s La Bamba’s main theme or anything, but there is a subtle acknowledgement of irony here, as events work against Ritchie in a way to place him in fate’s hands for the end of the film. For anyone familiar with The X-Files episode ‘Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose’, there is a lot philosophy that can be mined from the fate one can gain from a coin flip.

Like Coal Miner’s Daughter, the film captures not only musical talent in all its glory, but also in the life that comes with it. Like that film, there is a working-class element depicted here, a rags-to-riches narrative, but the element that perhaps makes La Bamba more relevant than ever is the immigrant status of its lead characters.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

America is a country that has forever had a knotty history with immigration. It’s a country made up of immigrants and families that have relatives in their past that crossed borders or made perilous sea crossings, and yet, as evidenced in the last few years, the subject can work a crowd up into a frenzy with talk of walls, displaying animalistic vindictiveness and hatred that is nauseating.

Valens came from an immigrant family, and the film documents matter of factly, but subtly, the life of himself, his mother (Roseanna De Soto) and future sister-in-law Rosie (Elizabeth Pena) as they live on a fruit picking farm in California before making their way to the San Fernando Valley where we witness Ritchie’s musical talent make waves.

Watching the film for the first time, one might be forgiven for thinking that they’ve missed the part where Lou Diamond Phillips is credited. After all, he is the star of the film. Remarkably, this was his screen debut, and his name comes last with an introductory credit. When it comes to the great debuts in film history, perhaps Phillips’ work here deserves more of a mention than it usually gets, but then it’s easy to forget this was his first film. He puts in such a charismatic performance that one could be forgiven for thinking he had several films under his belt before he starred as Valens.

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There is a tremendously engaging quality to his work here. He’s got such an infectious boyish charm, all brown-eyed and smiles, that it’s hard not to be swept along by his mere presence. He wants to be famous, but his heart is set on it not so much for himself, but to ensure a good life for those around him, including his mother.

In lesser hands, it might have been a cheesy piece of acting, but Phillips finds the grace and heart of Valens, so that the spectre of his eventual death at the end of the film is something you can’t help but want to wish away. The best films based on true stories have an ability to draw you in regardless of whether you know the ending, and La Bamba’s biggest strength is in making you wish for something other than the inevitable conclusion the film can only head towards.

The Californian setting gives proceedings a sunny grace, one that, despite the film’s darker moments, suggests that there is always a better tomorrow, one that Ritchie fights for throughout the film. If Coal Miner’s Daughter was characterised by earthy, muddy naturalism in its opening moments that are swept away the more famous Loretta Lynn became, La Bamba is characterised beautifully by its sunny Californian setting and depiction of Mexican family life.

Credit: Columbia Pictures

Being a film set in the 1950s, there is a gentle but tangible sense of how harsh the attitudes of the times were (and sadly still are). Ritchie must contend with racism from his girlfriend’s father, who would rather not see his daughter date someone that he at first thinks is Italian.

The film never becomes a polemic about the issues of racism, but nor does it sweep it under the rug. Valens’ not being white is a problem for Donna’s (Danielle von Zerneck) father, and the film does remind us that for all the nice cars, nice houses and life that Ritchie is striving towards, he is doing so in a world that has been programmed against him, which makes his eventual fame and success all the more wonderful and deserving.

Regrettably, toxicity also comes from within Ritchie’s home, displayed throughout due to his complex relationship with his brother Bob. Played brilliantly by Esai Morales, Bob frequently displays actions and delivers dialogue that cannot help but make one wince. Perhaps it’s the film pointing out the comparisons between the two brothers very potently.

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Bob’s relationship with Rosie is contentious and violent, and consent is something that Bob is seen disregarding at one point and talking about with a blasé attitude the next. There is one line of dialogue regarding sexual assault delivered by Bob which is genuinely shocking, but which perhaps says a lot about how consent was viewed between married couples during the 50s. Where Valens works hard to make his dreams a reality and finds true love, Bob’s relationship with Rosie becomes ever more toxic, his own dreams of becoming a cartoonist failing to come to fruition.

As for the music, Los Lobos and Carlos Santana contributed to the soundtrack and the film’s recreation of Valens’ performances are wonderful. When the title track is delivered, it proves to be a showstopping moment, a brilliant moment of catharsis that cannot help but hit you right in the gut. It’s such a great moment that they replay it again over the end credits. It’s an emotional peak for the film that simultaneously leaves you remembering Valens getting his moment where he made a mark on music, but also with sadness that he never got the chance to show the world more.

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