Tuesday, March 03, 2009

La Bamba

La Bamba posterLa Bamba (1987) tells the life story of 1950s rock-and-roll phenom, Ritchie Valens, from his underprivileged beginnings to his tragic end. The movie begins with Richie (Lou Diamond Phillips), born Ricardo Valenzuela, and his mother, Connie (Rosana DeSoto) working as fruit pickers in an orange grove in Paicoma, California. Their pay depends on their labour, but everyone in the camp works hard hours and enjoys the family-like atmosphere of Mexican tradition. One day, out of the blue, a motorcycle roars into the camp carrying tough guy Bob Valenzuela (Esai Morales), Richie’s older brother. The two embrace in a brotherly hug and then excitedly find their mother and Rosie, Richie’s love interest. Bob has just gotten out of jail and is eager to bring his family back to a city in southern California; but his mother refuses as she is suspicious that the money that he shows her has been cultivated in dishonest ways. Finally she is convinced, and they leave the next day, but not before Bob, with no concern for Richie’s feelings, takes Rosie’s virginity and brings her with them on his motorcycle. The family moves into a run-down shack while Rosie and Bob reside in the RV beside it. Bob continues his lifestyle of drinking and drugs, while Richie proves to be a clean-cut 16-year-old: going to school and staying out of trouble. The distance between the two brothers widens when Rosie announces she’s pregnant (with a baby that Bob does not care to have), whereas Ritchie joins the rock-and-roll band “The Silhouettes” and starts dating a blonde girl from high school named Donna.

After a few low-key garage gigs, Connie pumps up the band’s exposure and gets them a show at the local Legion Hall. When the lead singer becomes upset about Connie getting gigs for them, the rest of the band sides with Richie and allows him to sing an amazing set at the Legion. Later on that same night, Bob turns up drunk at the show and causes a huge brawl which ruins the evening. Connie yells at him, but Bob shows no remorse as he bellows that the world doesn’t revolve around Richie (albeit Richie joined in on the brawl to protect his drunk brother). However, all is not lost as a music scout named Bob Keene (Joe Pantoliano) had been among the young people in the crowded legion hall and he immediately signs Richie to his modest record label, Del-Fi Records. His rise to fame progresses quickly after that as the new ‘Ritchie Valens’ becomes a household name; but such fame brings a price to his personal life as his relationship with Donna slowly deteriorates on account of her father’s racism. During this time he also divulges that he has dreams of the memory of two planes crashing, falling to the earth, and killing his best friend, which has caused Richie’s fear of flying.

Recording the songs just as Keene envisions them proves to warrant much time and effort, but Richie is whole-heartedly committed to the cause of his music. Then, when brother Bob sees that Richie has written the song ‘For Donna’ in hopes of winning her over again, he takes action by forcing his reluctant brother across the border to Tijuana to get drunk and lose his virginity. Although Richie is distracted by the band onstage playing the folk song “La Bamba”, he still wakes up the next morning in an old Mexican man’s shack, with a hangover, a tattoo, and a talisman to protect him from his dreams of flying; but his virginity is still intact. Not long after, Keen gets Richie to agree to fly to New York in order to be on the popular teenage live-music show “American Bandstand”. This gig sends Richie straight to stardom and allows him to buy his mom the house he’s always wanted to give her, not to mention a flashy new car for himself which helps him to persuade Donna to come back to him. Again, at the sight of Richie’s fame, Bob flounders into drunkenness and Rosie does not even permit him to see his own daughter. Richie then asks Keene if he can try a rock-and-roll version of “La Bamba”. Keene is hesitant at first, but the new version becomes an instant success. Richie returns home from touring to a house full of smiling family and friends, except for Bob who still can’t take his brother’s fame. When Bob and Richie are alone together they begin yelling their true feelings at one another and Bob reveals that he never got over that fact that his father left when he was born and Richie’s father, Steve, was always the father that he had wanted but could never truly belong to. A fist fight ensues, and Bob yells, “I’m gonna kill you!” before accidentally ripping the talisman from Richie’s neck. The two stop and feel the gravity of what has been done. Richie is shaken by the experience, but still leaves his family and loving girlfriend behind to do a tour with several other big name rock-and-roll artists. When their tour bus breaks down and they instead have to fly to Fargo, Richie is hesitant but he is encouraged by the support of his friends as they all fly off into the snowy night.

The plane crashes and kills all the passengers. Ricardo Valenzuela: the affectionate son, the devoted boyfriend, and the phenomenal performer, was only seventeen years old when he died. His family and friends hear the news at the same time as the rest of the country on a national news radio bulletin: Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, and JB Richardson: all dead due to a tragic plane crash. The film’s heartbreaking ending leaves the audience with visions of those who were closest to Richie in absolute despair over the absence of this light in their life, their star of fame. Then, during the credits, the video of Richie performing La Bamba reminds us that through his beloved music he will live forever.

La Bamba is apparently a biography of Ritchie Valens’ life, but it could be argued that it is as much about his older brother Bob as it is about the star himself. The stark contrasts between the brothers can be seen in more than just their lifestyles, as Bob has held on to his Mexican roots and Richie hasn’t even really been introduced to them. Bob takes Richie to Tijuana and Richie is overwhelmed by the revelry and promiscuity at every turn. While Bob is able to chat-up the different prostitutes around the room, Richie can barely speak, let alone in Spanish. This lack of native culture is especially evident when he is confronted the next morning by the old Mexican man, to whom he says, “Yo no speako español.” What's more, when Richie continues to alter his lyrics while recording, Keen tries to be understanding, saying that he realizes Mexico has a tradition of changing song lyrics but this isn’t Mexico, when Richie interrupts him by saying, “Look man, I haven’t even been to Mexico. My music is my music.” The rich Latin American culture in the film is constantly mixed with the American purpose and resolve to attain that elusive American dream. But Ritchie Valens actually did make it to the top and wrote three #1 hits in his short recording career of eight months; even through an unsettling experience of having his name changed from Richie Valenzuela to Ritchie Valens in order to decrease his Mexican appearance. This is a Latinized, rags-to-riches, American story which analyzes Richie’s sense of self, asserting that although someone may be of Mexican heritage, his background certainly doesn’t dictate his identity, especially when the American dream is at stake.

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