La Bamba

by Glenn Erickson Sep 30, 2023

Out of the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll ‘fifties comes another story that ends on The Day the Music Died. Luis Valdez’s account of the rise and sudden silencing of the great Richie Valens avoids exaggeration to instead celebrate the young man’s positive potential. This is the show that put Lou Diamond Phillips on the map, and gave a solid boost as well to Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto and the much-missed Elizabeth Peña. The extras illuminate the enthusiasm with which the picture was made; it’s a cinematic high point for the theatrical talent Valdez.

La Bamba
The Criterion Collection 1193
1987 / Color / 1:85 widescreen / 108 min. / available through The Criterion Collection / Street Date September 26, 2023 / 39.95
Starring: Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto, Elizabeth Peña, Danielle von Zerneck, Joe Pantoliano, Rick Dees, Marshall Crenshaw, Howard Huntsberry, Brian Setzer, Daniel Valdez, Noble Willingham.
Cinematography: Adam Greenberg
Production Designer: Vince Cresciman
Film Editors: Don Brochu, Sheldon Kahn
Original Music: Miles Goodman, Carlos Santana
Produced by Bill Borden, Taylor Hackford
Written and Directed by
Luis Valdez

Remember the way radio personality Garrison Keillor would become so melancholy-reverent when recounting his experience around a fateful plane crash in Iowa on February 3, 1959?  The calamity was a cultural watershed for the generation just prior to my own, a powerful message to postwar teens that they too were mortal.

It took decades for Hollywood to recognize the era as rich with retro possibilities, perhaps motivated by the success of George Lucas’s American Graffiti. Coming nine years after Steve Rash’s impressive musical bio on Buddy Holly, Luis Valdez’ La Bamba charts the rise of Ricky Valenzuela, who as Ritchie Valens put an indelible mark on Rock ‘n’ Roll.

Richie Valens’ entire musical career lasted less than one year.

Buddy Holly had been professionally active for three busy years, recording a valued body of songs. Richie Valens’ good start saw three hits recorded in just eight months. He barely had time to make an impact but his memory stays alive for another reason. He was the first Mexican-American to make a mark in Rock ‘n’ Roll, a feat accomplished without abandoning his cultural identity. His big hit song La Bamba not only ‘crossed over’ but remains one of the most-played pop songs of the 1950s.


The movie launched the career of Lou Diamond Phillips, who is actually of mixed American and Philippine descent; Phillips captures perfectly the image of a late- 50’s L.A. chicano of high style. La Bamba is unusual in that it examines the Mexican-American experience but does not focus on crime or discrimination. Writer-director Luis Valdez infuses the film with cultural authenticity and honesty.

Sixteen year-old Ricardo Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) moves with his widowed mother Connie (Rosana De Soto) to Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley, and concentrates on his love of Rock ‘n’ Roll music. As a second-generation American he’s not even a fluent Spanish speaker. Richie writes, sings and plays guitar in an American style, and his music carries him forward through family difficulties. His half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales) is the family’s black sheep. He has served time in jail — Connie herself turned him in — and is still causing trouble. He makes money by transporting Marijuana across the border on his motorcycle. He steals Ricky’s girlfriend Rosie (Elizabeth Peña) and shacks up with her without marriage.


But when Ricky turns seventeen, everything suddenly goes right. Connie encourages his singing, and he attracts a band of his own. He forms a crush on Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck), a blonde Anglo classmate who doesn’t care that her father forbids her to see him. He’s ‘discovered’ by Del-Fi record producer Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), who shows him how to record professionally and changes his name to Ritchie Valens. Ritchie flies to Philadelphia for American Bandstand and becomes a nationwide hit. He has a new car and is able to buy his mother a new house. He’s levelheaded, he knows what he wants, and the future looks great. But there’s potential trouble ahead. Will his half-brother’s jealous and destructive outbursts sink Richie’s hopes for stardom?

Most viewers don’t know that the movie La Bamba was written and directed by Luis Valdez, a son of farm workers who became a noted playwright and activist for pro-union causes. His play Zoot Suit introduced Edward James Olmos and the subsequent film version is his only other theatrical film as director. As La Bamba is not political Valdez is able to present an image of the Mexican-American underclass in a non-confrontational context. Young Ricky has a big heart but also strong support from his mother; his brother’s difficulties lie more in personality than social disadvantage. Valdez isn’t afraid to show Bob Morales selling grass and taking Ricky to a low-life Tijuana brothel. He’s a lout who mistreats his common-law wife and terrorizes the family with his drunken outbursts. But he’s also a frustrated artist, lacking the personal strength to develop his talent.


Valdez communicates the strong ties that hold Mexican-American families together. The particularly nurturing Connie Valenzuela works as a waitress, raises her kids and supports and encourages Ricky’s ambitions. Her positive motivation gives Richie a compass. When the record producer talks him into abandoning his band to pursue a solo career, he agrees instantly — it’s the right move for his family. We’re told that Valdez elicited and won full cooperation from the Valenzuela clan. The real Connie Valenzuela appears in one scene.

It’s good that the filmmakers had this rich family background to work with — without it Valens’ stellar career would seem a flash that ended before it began. The Buddy Holly Story had a broader narrative to explore and as such was able to allow the violent finish to sneak up on the audience. Writer-director Valdez instead telegraphs intimations of Fate into the narrative in the very first scene. The script foreshadows ‘The Day The Music Died’ by salting Valens’ fear of flying into the story, and by returning two or three times to his vivid airplane-related nightmare.


The legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll plane disaster is a shocking life lesson without a reassuring moral:  people dear to us can just vanish at any time. Richie was the focus of his entire family. He had taken just a few steps into a promising future when it all came to an end.

The acting is remarkable, with Esai Morales and Rosanna DeSoto creating the richest characterizations. Lou Diamond Phillips is a charismatic and sweet Ritchie; we believe it when he commandeers a pay phone to serenade his girlfriend with a song he’s just written for her,  ‘Donna.’  Even casual listeners to Oldies stations will be moved by the personal connection. It was recorded fewer than 60 days before Valens died.


Danielle von Zerneck is a believable white-bread girlfriend. An obedient daughter, she submits to her father’s bullying only until a car of her own gives her the mobility to see Ritchie whenever she wants. Joe Pantoliano’s Bob Keane must be the nicest record producer in musical bio history — he and Ritchie get along famously.

Unlike some other musical bios, Lou Diamong Phillips doesn’t simply lip-synch to Valens’ hit songs. The innovative band Los Lobos recreates Ritchie Valens’ sound, accurately reviving the style of his three biggest hits. By giving us a taste of the original Mexican song La Bamba Los Lobos show how the Americanized version crosses the culture border. The progressive, dynamic R&R guitar riff is pure California rock, yet underneath the rhythm the song stays Latin, all the way.



The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray of La Bamba is a new 4K digital restoration, approved by director Luis Valdez, with a 5.1 surround DTS-HD soundtrack. The defunct label Twilight Time released a fine Blu-ray 9 years ago; it might remain a collector’s item for its isolated music track.

The music recording is excellent, as befits a movie where one wants to jump up and dance. The pickup cues are interesting as well, as with the use of ‘Sleepwalk’ for the opening dream scene. Years before, the same recording was used even more effectively in the Antonio Pietrangeli picture Adua and Her Friends.

Disc producer Valeria Rotella lines up some good extras, old and new. The dual commentaries were on the Twilight Time disc, likely repurposed from an earlier video incarnation. Tapped for the tracks are Luis Valdez, Lou Diamond Phillips & Esai Morales, and producers Stuart Benjamin, Taylor Hackford, and Daniel Valdez.

The new item is a long-form interview with Luis Valdez, who explains his background growing up in the late 1940s and his start in theater through his farmworker-activist organization El Teatro Campesino. A bit less focused but also good is the ‘Ricardo Montalban Theater’ Director’s Chair conversation piece with Valdez and director Robert Rodriguez.

The Making-Of featurette is from Sony Pictures; actors will be interested in seeing the audition footage for the film’s four sort-of discoveries Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, Rosanna DeSoto and Elizabeth Peña.

An insert foldout carries an essay by critic Yolanda Machado, whose overview of La Bamba reminds us of how well the film was marketed — it appears to have been a solid hit at the box office. The only gripe about Criterion’s disc is the use of the title song on all the menus. It spoils its appearance in the film itself. That was an early complaint back at the old DVD Savant web page: How to Annoy a DVD Fan. The article is from 2008 — some of the reader contributors are still frequent correspondents!

There’s one more 1980s musical bio based on a singing legend with a career cut short by a fateful accident. Karel Reisz’s 1985 Sweet Dreams may have helped La Bamba get made. It stars Jessica Lange as the ill-fated country superstar Patsy Cline, and co-stars Ed Harris. A Tri-Star release, it hasn’t made the jump to Blu-ray. Sweet Dreams wasn’t as critically embraced as was La Bamba, but it made a big impression on us.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

La Bamba
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Audio commentaries featuring Valdez, actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, and producers Stuart Benjamin, Taylor Hackford, and Daniel Valdez
New interview with Luis Valdez
Conversation between Valdez and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez from El Rey Network’s The Director’s Chair
Making-of program featuring cast and crew
Audition footage
Insert folder with an essay by critic Yolanda Machado .
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
September 27, 2023

Visit CineSavant’s Main Column Page
Glenn Erickson answers most reader mail:

Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

3.7 3 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Jenny Agutter fan

Danielle von Zerneck is a real babe.


[…] was surrounded by an aura of decency and goodness. Looking at her filmography, we remember her in La Bamba,  … batteries not included, and  The Second Civil War, but we don’t see the breakaway […]


[…] out, but not so some of the other tenants. The very pregnant Marisa Esteval (Elizabeth Peña of  La Bamba and  Lone Star) has pinned her hopes on the unlikely return of an absent, uncommitted boyfriend. […]

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x