The Underrated Film About Music Pioneer Ritchie Valens


La Bamba was released during a turbulent time in California. In 1987, Reaganomics had led to a greater divide between rich and poor in Hollywood, a town that already represented both extremes. Latino communities continued to face disenfranchisement and segregation even as a new generation of Chicanos brought the beauty of Mexican culture back to the arts in California. Mexican-Americans were severely under-represented in Hollywood in the 1980s.

Enter Luis Valdez, the pioneering playwright who crossed over to film with this unbelievable cross-section of American class structure and ’50s culture — using Ritchie Valens’ unforgettable story as his jumping off point.

When thinking of La Bamba, step back and consider how unlikely this all is: an 18th Century folk song gets refashioned as a Rock ‘N’ Roll single by the 17-year-old son of migrant parents, becomes a hit, and inspires one of the great films about Chicanos in America. That is the miracle of Valens’ story, and it is — all at once — a propaganda piece for the success of the American Dream, and an exposé about how Latinos were held back, using Ritchie’s half-brother Bob (Esai Morales) as an example of racial disenfranchisement.

Even this landmark film for Mexican-Americans in Hollywood opted to cast Lou Diamond Phillips, a Filipino-American, in the film’s starring role — a decision that likely wouldn’t be made today. Still, the film’s legacy, and that of Luis Valdez, endures.

La Bamba

La Bamba

Release Date
July 24, 1987

Luis Valdez



Lou Diamond Phillips Looked the Part as Valens

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Columbia Pictures

“Here’s a bit of a rattlesnake.” As soon as Ritchie Valens delivers the line onstage, the audience knows he’s found his place in the world — in front of a microphone. Lou Diamond Phillips didn’t do the singing for La Bamba, that task went to Los Lobos guitarist David Hidalgo, but he looked the part, learning to play the guitar parts and sashaying convincingly to make the film’s live music scenes unforgettable.

It was Phillips’ big acting break, and led to a career that was, for a time, en vogue — as he would appear in trendy films like the Young Guns franchise, and seemed to work constantly. He has remained a working actor to this day, but is still most recognizable for his role as Valens.

Here is Phillips as Valens performing La Bamba, via YouTube channel Scene City:

Lou Diamond Phillips Still Champions the Film’s Importance

Celebrating the film’s 35th anniversary in 2022, Phillips reflected on La Bamba‘s importance for Yahoo Entertainment, saying:

“The amount of inclusion and diversity we are seeing today began with movies like La Bamba…the expectation wasn’t much: here is an unknown kid from Dallas playing an obscure Mexican-American artist on a $6 million budget — it went through the roof.”

That cemented Phillips’ place in Hollywood, and he’s had an incredibly prolific career ever since, acting in over an astounding 200 roles in film and television.

Related: Lou Diamond Phillips is ‘Grateful’ For La Bamba Changing His Life Forever

Esai Morales’ Performance As Bob Deserved Awards

Columbia Pictures

Esai Morales’ career has been more nuanced than Phillips’, as he quietly carved out one of the more impressive careers of any Latin-American actor for the last 40 years, but still struggled to land roles. Morales first gained notice in the Sean Penn juvenile prison film Bad Boys, which led to some television roles, before being cast as Roberto “Bob” Morales in La Bamba. Morales unexpectedly won the movie, with a character more complex than Ritchie — beset by his half-brother’s enormous success after failure to launch his own career as a cartoonist.

Morales Has Endured Through An Up-and-Down Career

In today’s climate, Morales’ performance as Bob would likely have launched him into an A-List career and contention for major acting awards. As it was, Morales would trudge along as a working actor for the next three decades, until garnering some higher-profile roles of late, in Ozark and Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning Part One.

Still, Morales has always impressed, no matter how much the roles available to him didn’t match up to his talent level. La Bamba won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama in 1988, the lone major award the film received, but Morales’ performance (though generally regarded as the film’s best) went largely unsung.

“The Day the Music Died” Provided Pivotal Historical Context

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Brunswick Records

On February 3, 1959, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson were all killed in a plane crash over Clear Lake, Iowa. The fateful coin flip in La Bamba that determined who would ride in the plane wasn’t a film fabrication — it happened. Buddy Holly’s bandmate Tommy Allsup lost the toss to Valens, a blessing in disguise when he avoided the disaster that came to be known as “The Day the Music Died”. For Valens, it meant lights out on a music career that had begun only 8 months prior.

Representation of Chicano Culture’s Crucial Role in American Society

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Columbia Pictures

The 1980s saw a sea change in the role of Latino culture in Los Angeles. Fernando-Mania had gripped the town, after Mexican pitcher Fernando Valenzuela had taken ownership of Dodger Stadium (a ballpark that was built by bulldozing over a primarily Latino neighborhood in Echo Park). Cesar Chavez had brought national recognition of the importance of Mexican laborers to the American economy and fought for their human rights causes — and incredible artists began to emerge from these Chicano communities in Southern California.

Here is an interview with director Luis Valdez, via NBC:

Luis Valdez’s Importance to Chicano Culture

La Bamba director Luis Valdez was one such artist, born to migrant laborer parents in Delano, California, a dusty agro-industrial town close to Bakersfield. Valdez is regarded as the father of Chicano film and playwriting, and became the obvious choice to direct La Bamba after leading El Teatro Campesino — a theater group that marched and picketed alongside Cesar Chavez in Delano.

Related: The 13 Best Mexican Film Directors of All Time

Ritchie Valens’ Incredible Music

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Del-Fi Records

This film would never exist if not for one main reason — Valens’ unbelievable songs. The showman used his Harmony Stratotone H44 guitar to combine rock ‘n’ roll with Mexican folk music, singing verses in Spanish and English to make the greatest genre crossover of the 1950s with “La Bamba.” He consumed everything from mariachi to Buddy Holly, and repackaged it into a new genre he helped to pioneer — the Chicano rock movement.

Still, Valens’ legacy goes beyond his cultural importance. He was one of rock music’s greatest prodigies, having a single, “Oh, Donna,” that reached number 2 on the Billboard charts when Valens was only 17-years-old. His legacy endures in the music of bands like Los Lobos, who recorded a spruced up version of “La Bamba” for the film, and still echo Valens’ legacy — along with many other Latin-American musicians. Rent on Amazon Prime Video

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