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Somehow, despite having seen the movie La Bamba more than a dozen times in my life, watching the movie on its 30th Anniversary felt brand new. La Bamba was a film of my youth; I was 11 years old when the film hit theaters in 1987. I watched it repeatedly when it was on pay cable and free TV in the later 80’s and 90’s and then the film fell from my memory. You might be wondering how I could have allowed something I must’ve treasured to leave my memories. The answer is more complicated than I had imagined.
La Bamba, the movie, we will get to the song later, tells the story of teenage rock star Ritchie Valens who nearly became a footnote in musical history when he was killed in a plane crash alongside the legendary Buddy Holly and fellow rising star The Big Bopper, on February 3rd, 1959, after having released only 3 hit singles and being a mere 17 years old. Though his popularity was rising in 1959 with people comparing the young Chicano rocker to Elvis, Valens wasn’t nearly the star Buddy Holly was and could have been preserved in history only by his family and community had it not been for this remarkable 1987 biopic.
Director Luis Valdez is a legend in his own right and in his own unique way. Desperate for an outlet for his plays, Valdez approached legendary California union activist Cesar Chavez about creating a theater troupe among the striking migrant workers. Chavez agreed only after Valdez devoted time to union organizing, time which he also took to recruit actors and performers from among the striking union to join him. He founded a troupe called El Treato Campesino, The Farmworkers Theater, which has become the creative home for Mexican Americans of many talents over the past 50 plus years.
Valdez is, in interviews, a gregarious and thoughtful man who is aware of his place in theatrical history and in the arts community of Mexican Americans, but doesn’t come off as arrogant. Valdez earned the chance to direct La Bamba following the success of his play Zoot Suit, one of the longest running and most respected works of El Treato Campesino and despite the financial failure of his attempt at adapting Zoot Suit to the screen.
Valdez and his history is what struck me about watching La Bamba again for the first time and doing it from a highly critical perspective rather than that of an average fan. I listened to Valdez talk about art and community and what Ritchie Valens meant to him and how he brought his own experience as a migrant worker, as an artist and a theater director to Ritchie’s life story and the movie deepened for me on both an emotional and critical level.
Learning about Luis Valdez for the first time gave me a new appreciation of the film. I can see now how the pieces of the movie that seem to clash stylistically are more memorable and relatable than ever now. The best example comes in the performance of Esai Morales as Ritchie’s brother, Bob. Morales was a theatrically trained actor and under the direction of a seasoned theater director in Valdez, Morales brings a belt it to the back-row power to his performance that can seem, for some audiences, inauthentic in a cinematic setting.
Those audiences aren’t wrong but what they are missing is the way in which Luis Valdez uses Morales’s performance opposite the quieter and more cinematic performance of Lou Diamond Phillips. The power of Morales versus the quiet strength and charisma of Phillips makes for a powerful two-hander of performances. They are opposites and yet loving brothers. Ritchie is straitlaced and reserved, having not had much time to really live while Bob was hardened through age and experiences that stunted him emotionally to nearly the same age as his little brother.
The Kane and Abel dynamic of Bob and Ritchie is very much the intended invention of director Luis Valdez. He uses the theatricality of Morales and the cinematic charisma of Phillips to underline the conflict of the two brothers. It’s a directorial shorthand but a very effective one that makes both performances standout while grounding Morales’s theatricality in a cinematic reality. It’s the kind of directorial decision that only a theater director might make.
Getting to know the work of Luis Valdez in this 30th Anniversary week of La Bamba has changed the way I look at the movie. The experience has deepened for me in ways I never imagined. The experience sent me down rabbit holes I never expected to go down from learning about the history of the song, which dates to Mexico in the 1830’s to learning about the real-life Donna Ludwig whose brief teenage infatuation with Ritchie Valens inspired the film’s love story.
Through Donna Ludwig Ritchie Valens learned about falling in love and, sadly about race and class from a classless father who soon fell out of the life of Donna Ludwig as her life went on after Ritchie. Did you know the real life Donna went on a date with Elvis who spent the whole time asking about Ritchie? Or that her horror of a father forced her to try and capitalize on Ritchie’s death by getting her a record deal to in order to sing maudlin tributes to her boyfriend of a brief few months.
The words La Bamba themselves are fascinating. A 1987 article in the Chicago Tribune explains that the words La Bamba translate to The Bamba which is a dance in Mexico that dates back to the 1830’s. Children like Ritchie Valens grew up with La Bamba as a hand me down of folk art as music. No one really knows who wrote it, having only tracked the creation of La Bamba to a region of Mexico. Ritchie Valens made history by taking this cultural hand me down and combining it with the music that defined modern America of the 50’s, rock n’roll.
The synthesis of Mexican and American culture at that time was revolutionary. It took nearly 30 years and yet another interpretation of the song before a Spanish language song would come to dominate radio as the band Los Lobos helped bring Ritchie Valens back to life by embodying his voice on the film soundtrack for La Bamba. 30 years later we still find ourselves shocked to hear Spanish on mainstream radio with the song Despacito having recently hit number one and shone a light on how cultural assimilation through art hasn’t evolved all that much from Ritchie’s day.
Another remarkable thing about the life of Ritchie Valens and the storytelling of La Bamba, Ritchie recorded 3 hit songs in a matter of months in 1958 and then was gone in February of 1959. Yet, La Bamba and director Luis Valdez mine a complete life from this tragically brief life and without having to resort to childhood flashbacks; though a very cinematic dream sequence plays a pivotal role in the film, inspired a darkly ironic moment in the life of Ritchie Valens.
The dreams, if there is an aspect of La Bamba that I have wrestled with, it’s the dreams. They are a device and one that, unlike the use of Esai Morales’ performance to counterpoint Lou Diamond Phillips, doesn’t quite work. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a minor complaint, but the way Valdez employs this nightmare/memory to communicate Ritchie’s fear of flying which leads to the introduction of a talisman and a rather forced moment of drama regarding said talisman, is, to my mind, a theatrical director’s idea of cinema.
Again, it’s a minor flaw in what I believe is a genuine classic film. La Bamba is lively and genuine, sweet without ever turning saccharine. La Bamba is filled with the joy of music and the depth of tragic loss. The film unites history and experience and brings together the lives of two Chicano men who, though they may never have met, traveled the same roads and felt the same restless, artistic drive. Like Ritchie Valens, Luis Valdez came of age in California in the 1940’s and lived in a small hut in an Orange grove where he went to work at an age when most children only attend school.
And here, nearly 2000 words into this ramble is where we return to why I allowed the brilliance and timelessness of La Bamba to slip away from me. Unlike Luis Valdez, I never experienced anything like Ritchie Valens did. And I have certainly never had an experience like that of Luis Valdez. Growing up white and privileged, at least early in my life, I never experienced any true hardship. Life for me was toys and school and friends and homework, not a 6-hour school day and a 10-hour workday in a field for a wage that wasn’t merely modest, it was barely guaranteed.
Simply put, my younger self appreciated the pop elements of La Bamba, the hit song, the handsome and charismatic leading man who modeled the kind of aesthetic I hoped to model as I grew up. Not understanding much about race and class differences what I first related to about La Bamba was the way Lou Diamond Phillips was built and dressed. I wanted to look like him, as much as pre-teen, Midwestern, white kid could look like Lou Diamond Phillips. I liked his shirts and pants and sweaters, I still do.
But what makes a movie resonant is shared human experience and as a younger man I had no shared experience with Ritchie Valens beyond a shallow, aesthetic appreciation. And, as a younger man, I had absolutely no idea that Luis Valdez was a man who changed people’s lives through art. 50 plus years he’s worked to use art to teach and to learn. In an interview with a radio station called KKUP in 2015, on the 50th Anniversary of El Treato Campesino, Valdez put words to something I have long believed but had never properly expressed, he said “Learn by teaching and teach by learning.”
That new to me phrase is something that I have thought for years but never truly understood until now and in relating so deeply and emotionally with Luis Valdez I have come to a new understanding of his art in a whole new and glorious context. And, in that new context I can see La Bamba for the classic that it is, a merging of music, of life experience, of theater and of cinema all through the tragically short life of a young and potentially brilliant artist.
How remarkable it is to see something old with new eyes. La Bamba feels brand new to my 41-year-old self. Seeing it with new eyes has revealed the film in new ways, both historic and cinematic. Luis Valdez is a true artist and while he only directed three films, we were lucky that it was he who was given the chance to bring Ritchie Valens back to life at the movies. Because of Luis Valdez, and of course the remarkable hard work of his family who are artists themselves, Ritchie Valens will never be forgotten, especially as we grow up and we come to understand what life experience is and what it means to the art we consume.