Home Video Hovel: La Bamba, by Rudie Obias
At this point in time, the music biopic is a tried and true subgenre complete with loads of clichés and tropes. Anyone who has watched Jake Kasdan’s parody Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story knows that the music biopic is overdone and almost paint-by-numbers. These movies have a rise to stardom with a dramatic fall followed by a brief moment of redemption, while everything in-between is not-so-clever ways how popular recording artists came up with their hit songs. The “We Will Rock You” scene in Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody comes to mind. However, divorced from hackneyed storytelling that’s seems to be everywhere in today’s music biopics, like Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance with Somebody and Spinning Gold, is Luis Valdez’s 1987 film La Bamba — a movie that has the plot points of a conventional biopic, but also full of sincerity and details of living as a Mexican-American during the 1950s.
Recently added to the Criterion Collection, La Bamba follows the life and short music career of rock star Ritchie Valens, played by Lou Diamond Phillips in a breakthrough performance. Although the film is about Valens rise to fame during the early days of Rock and Roll, much of the film’s heart and soul is spent with his family — namely his mother Connie, played by Rosanna DeSoto, his older brother Bob, played by the always cool Esai Morales, his girlfriend Donna, played by Danielle von Zerneck, and Bob’s on-again-off-again girlfriend Rosie, played by Elizabeth Peña. These people mean as much to Valens as his music, so it only feels fitting that equal weight is given — especially if you see La Bamba as a coming of age movie
Shifting the focus from Valens’ rock star life to his family life makes this film different from other music biopics, which feels like giving lip service to a subject’s personal life away from the limelight. In the case of La Bamba, it seems to be the main focus and its texture.
Meanwhile, Phillips is cool and charismatic with a big screen presence that launched his acting career into stardom as well. It’s another fitting moment witnessing the rise of Valens and Phillips at the same time. Valdez, who is considered the father of Chicano cinema, put together quite the film that’s life and great music.
Valens’ songs are performed by the band Los Lobos — who make a brief cameo in the film as the band in the brothel ballroom in Tijuana, Mexico. Los Lobos also plays as Valens’ on-screen inspiration for turning the traditional “La Bamba” song into a now rock and roll classic.
In addition, the filmmakers inject Valens’ culture as a Mexican-American who is not quite Mexican and not quite American. Valdez gives La Bamba a specificity that seems missing from today’s music biopic that feels more concerned with hitting the beats of a famous musician, rather than filling a life with family, shortcomings, and joy.
As for the release itself, the Criterion Collection restored the film in a new 4K digital restoration with Valdez’s approval, while a new interview with the director provides insight on the impact of La Bamba nearly 40 years later. The disc also features an older commentary track with cast and crew from a previous release and a segment from El Rey Network’s The Director’s Chair series featuring Valdez with fellow Mexican-America director Robert Rodriguez.
It’s worth the upgrade for the new restoration alone, but if you already have La Bamba on Blu-ray, then it might not be worth the double dip. However, since this release fully rounds out the movie as a whole, it’s something to consider picking up, if you’ve never seen La Bamba or never owned it on VHS or DVD. But considering that this movie always seems to be streaming for free on Roku or Tubi or something, or on cable on a Saturday afternoon, you’re getting this home release for its extras — including audition footage, Eric Skillman’s colorful cover art, and critic Yolanda Machado’s excellent essay, “American Dreaming, Chicano Style.”