La Bamba [1987]

Genre: Biography, Drama, Music
When Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens hopped a small plane after a Midwestern concert gig, early rock suffered one of its most striking tragedies. Holly's death in the plane's crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, was an obvious loss given the Texas rocker's international reputation. But Valens, a Pacoima, California, teenager, was much closer to the starting gate, his impact extending to just two national chart hits, the teen ballad "Donna" and his ebullient recasting of a Mexican wedding song, "La Bamba." Director and playwright Luis Valdez, who had previously examined Southern California's Latino heritage through stage productions, brought a deep well of cultural identification and dramatic empathy to Valens's story. La Bamba thus probes Valens's underlying sense of cultural distance from the mainstream and acknowledges the inevitable racism of its setting, yet it's to everyone's credit that the movie avoids an excessive, revisionist emphasis; Valens's simple joy in music and the relative innocence of the era are felt, even though the script is careful not to sanitize earthier elements. Lou Diamond Phillips makes an impressive debut in the title role, matched by strong performances from Esai Morales and Elizabeth Peña, while the music gets kick started by the shrewd decision to draft Los Lobos to re-create Valens's music. Rock fans will also smile at savvy casting for Valens peers Eddie Cochran (Brian Setzer), Jackie Wilson (Howard Huntsberry), and Holly himself (Marshall Crenshaw). --Sam Sutherland

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