Monday, May 18, 2020

Reeling Backward: "La Bamba" (1987)

Ritchie Valens did not speak Spanish. He sang the lyrics to "La Bamba" phonetically -- which is ironic for the first major Spanish-language rock 'n' roll hit, and one credited with helping launch the Chicano rock movement.

Somehow I grew up in the 1980s without ever seeing the eponymous biopic written and directed by Luis Valdez that launched the career of Lou Diamond Phillips in his first major role. The credits list him as "Introducing," though he'd actually had bit parts in small films and on TV, including playing a detective on "Miami Vice," going back several years.

It's an energetic picture filled with light and music, and Phillips is an easygoing charismatic presence as Valens, who's so sweet-hearted he's almost angelic. He perished at age 17 just eight months into his recording career on the infamous plane flight that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper, aka "The Day the Music Died."

Phillips does not sing in the movie, which also does not use dubbings of Valens' original vocals but instead contemporaneous covers by Los Lobos. They also supplied updated versions of Valens' other hits, "Come On, Let's Go!", "Ooh My Head," "We Belong Together," "Framed" and the sugary-sweet heartbreaker, "Donna."

"Donna" was actually Valens' highest chart-topper at No. 2. "La Bamba" only ever made it into the Top 40 for Valens, but Los Lobos' version hit No. 1 in 1987.

Another thing I learned after watching the movie: Phillips is not Latino but Filipino, with some European and Native American ancestry. Nowadays there would have been quite an outcry about a non-Latin playing an iconic Mexican-American.

The story plays it very straight. It starts with Ritchie as a teenager in Southern California, strumming his guitar and dreaming of the big time. Family and friends joking call him "High Tone," maybe as much for his soaring tenor as his goody-two-shoes ways. He falls for the new blonde girl in school, Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), but her dad doesn't like him because he's Mexican-American.

Yes, this is the girl who inspired the song "Donna" after one of their breakups, and from what I've gathered the depiction of their relationship is pretty accurate to real life.

Ritchie gets into The Silhouettes, a fairly awful rock group, and is relegated to strumming on the sidelines by the egotistical lead singer. Ritchie basically steals the band from him, plays a few local gigs and gets noticed by Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), who runs a small record label, Del-Fi. Soon enough he's got a few hit records and is touring the country.

I enjoyed the scene where Ritchie tries out for Keane in the man's basement recording studio. He's put off by the amateurish digs, but is eager to do anything to get noticed. Usually in these movies the managers/producers play the louts -- see "Rocketman" for a particularly nasty example -- but here Keane is a straight arrow who knows how to work the angles without sacrificing the talent to the wolves.

The movies glosses over any unseemly aspects of Ritchie's stratospheric rise. For instance, it's mentioned but never really addressed that he dropped out of high school to go on the road. Or the minute that Keane tells Ritchie he's got to drop the Silhouettes if he wants to make it, he doesn't hesitate to do so. And we never get a scene revealing that confrontation.

He also doesn't make a fuss over adopting the stage name Ritchie Valens from his given one of Richard Valenzuel, even adding the WASP-y "t" to his nickname to help fool the DJs who largely controlled what got played into thinking he was another white boy from the surburbs.

Rosanna DeSoto is a lotta bit over the top as Connie, Ritchie's eternally enthusiastic mother. She doesn't even seem to notice the barely concealed way she favors him over his older half-brother, Bob, played by Esai Morales. Morales was the bigger star at the time after his breakout as the heavy in "Bad Boys" opposite Sean Penn.

I was surprised and slightly dismayed by how much the film features Bob, a drunken motorcycle-riding rebel in a black leather jacket whose open jealousy toward Ritchie colors all of the family dynamics. These scenes play out with a dread sameness: Ritchie's getting accolades for his latest accomplishment, Bob shows up soused and makes a scene, everyone dumps on him and then he leaves in a huff.

Bob impregnates Rosie (Elizabeth Peña), a girl Ritchie had been sweet on, and their non-marital strife plays out constantly in the trailer home next to Ritchie's. There's a couple of uncomfortable scenes where Bob basically forces himself on Rosie, and even uses the word "rape" to describe their love life. Eep.

I get the idea behind contrasting Ritchie and Bob. Valens only was a star for a few short months, and thus there's little built-in tension to give the movie any dramatic momentum -- he sings, he woos a girl, he dies. So Valdez, making his second feature film after starting out as a playwright and stage director, whipped up a classic sibling rivalry.

The instinct is solid but it's just overplayed too much -- to the point Bob is almost a co-lead character. I can just see the conversation at the studio:

"Hey! Let's make movie celebrating the life and music of Ritchie Valens!"

"Awesome idea! But let's devote half of it to his mopey loser half-brother! We can have like 37 scenes of him being drunk and resentful!"

I kid, I kid.

Speaking of the music, it really is the reason to see this movie. I'm not sure how much the name of Ritchie Valens resonated in pop culture before "La Bamba" came out.

In addition I also enjoyed the performances by contemporaneous musicians as other acts of the late 1950s, including Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly, Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran and Howard Huntsberry as Jackie Wilson. Ghost voices from the radio, brought vividly back to life.

Stephen Lee also shows up as The Big Bopper, though he doesn't sing.

There's a recurring theme in the film of Ritchie having dreams of dying in a plane crash. He says a friend of his was killed at the school playground when the wreckage from two colliding planes rained down on a day he was home sick. (I've no idea if this was actually true.) His guilt is parlayed into the idea he escaped death's grip, but only temporarily.

There's also a strange sequence were Bob takes Ritchie down to Tijuana to "make him a man," although he gets distracted by the musicians performing at the whorehouse and ends up not consummating the deal. The implication, along with the barely-a-kiss relationships with Donna, suggest Valens died a virgin.

He wakes up the next day in the shack of an old Mexican shaman, who gives Ritchie a necklace that's supposed to protect him from bad visions. Later Bob rips it off during one of their tussles, and it's shortly thereafter Ritchie climbs aboard that fateful flight. It plays as a bunch of amateur-hour pseudo-spiritual hooey.

About that plane: Ritchie was on a winter tour with Holly, Bopper and some other stars, consigned to an old bus with no working heat. Many of the musicians, including Ritchie, became sick and a drummer even had to leave the tour because of frostbite(!). Holly was fed up with the conditions and chartered a four-seater plane ride to their next gig.

Waylon Jennings, who was a member of Holly's band, lost his seat to the Bopper, who was among those with the flu. Jennings joked to Holly about hoping his plane crashed, and was haunted by it for the rest of his life. Ritchie won a coin toss for the last seat, sealing his fate.

It really did happen as depicted in the movie that Valens' family found out about his death from media reports, as did Holly's wife. This event, as much as anything, led to the now-ubiquitous policy of civil and law enforcement authorities not revealing the names of the dead to the public until families have been notified.

"La Bamba" is a knockout whenever it focuses on the music of Ritchie Valens (and his contemporaries), though it loses its navigation a bit when it's not.

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