Lou Diamond Phillips became an overnight star with his magnetic portrayal of Valens. But it’s Esai Morales who leaves the most indelible impression as Ritchie’s brother Bob. Perpetually underappreciated and struggling with untreated alcoholism, Bob is a talented cartoonist and an undying supporter of his little brother’s music career. Yet his ne’er do well attitude, enhanced no doubt by his mother’s (an effective Rosanna DeSoto) constant dismissal of him, results in consistent self-sabotage. As Ritchie begins his ascent to superstardom (only briefly enjoyed before his death at 17, along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson, in the infamous February 3, 1959 plane crash), Bob does everything he can to be part of it. Rather than coming off as a hanger-on, we feel his love and respect for Ritchie’s talent. Whether it’s designing posters for concerts or even filling in (with zero experience) as Ritchie’s drummer, Bob is all heart. But he’s also fueled by alcohol, which lands him in trouble time and again.
Director Valdez hits many of the usual beats throughout La Bamba, including introducing us to Del-Fi Records owner Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano) who discovers Valens and quickly signs him to the label. Valens’ relationship with high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck, delivering a sweetly unaffected performance) is depicted as chastely as possible. Her father can’t tolerate Donna dating a Mexican-American and attempts to derail their affair. That’s about as far as Valdez delves into ethnicity-related issues in the Valens story. If anything, Valens’ visionary, radical reinterpretation of a traditional Mexican folk song (which serves as the film’s title) is downplayed in terms of cultural impact. Unlike Busey in The Buddy Holly Story, Phillips doesn’t attempt to sing Valens’ songs. That task is left to the quite capable band Los Lobos, who helped reintroduce a new generation to Valens’ music with their popular recreations of the original hits.
Rising rock star clichés aside, La Bamba is ultimately the story of two very different brothers. As the younger, Ritchie actually comes off as quite callow most of the time, failing to recognize the depth his brother’s soul. Of course, that couldn’t be more realistic given that Valens wasn’t even an adult at the time of his tragic death. We don’t see what became of his brother Bob, but his skyward cry—scored to Santo & Johnny’s plaintive 1959 instrumental “Sleep Walk”—at the very end is the film’s most poignant moment. While The Buddy Holly Story ended on a somewhat forced triumphant note, with a freeze-frame following what would be Holly’s final performance, Valdez forces us to accept what Valens’ passing meant to his friends and family. The epilogue jerks tears, but they’re earned.
Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation is excellent, sporting a 1080p high definition transfer that was struck from a clean source. La Bamba hit theaters in 1987 and while this retains the look of a ‘80s-era film, Adam Greenberg’s cinematography looks refreshed. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix doesn’t overly open up to the rear channels and LFE activity is arguably a bit light, but it sounds great nonetheless. The music is what most people will be cranking their systems for, and it’s lively and robust. Twilight Time also provides one of their traditional isolated score tracks.
While a theatrical trailer is the sole video-based supplement, two highly informative commentary tracks complement the Blu-ray. One track features director Luis Valdez with cast members Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales. For the other, we hear producers Daniel Valdez and Taylor Hackford. The booklet contains a new essay by Twilight Time house historian Julie Kirgo.
In 1987, an era dominated by synth pop and hair metal, La Bamba made ‘50s rock and roll cool again. Hopefully the same thing continues to happen 27 years later, though it’s hard to say how today’s teens would react to it. Luis Valdez infused the Ritchie Valens story with plenty of verve, making this one of the most exciting and emotionally effective music biopics ever made. Head over to Twilight Time distributor Screen Archives for ordering information, while supplies last.