La Bamba

Cinema Veritas

La Bamba

Directed by Louis Valdez

the Harvard Square Cinema

The movie has received all the hype of being a major cinematic event. It is not. Instead, La Bamba is proof--for anybody who still needs it--that the 1980s are frighteningly similar to the 1950s.

The movie looks remarkable contemporary throughout, and it is somewhat eerie to remember that the soundtrack comes from Los Lobos, voted Band of the Year by the once-progressive Rolling Stone magazine in the mid-'80s. When the Stray Cats' Brian Setzer does his Eddie Chocrane impersonation, and Marshall Crenshaw does his Buddy Holly stand-in bit, our generation's obseesion with the Eisenhower era is cast into vivid relief.

But then, La Bamba isn't about the 1950s at all. It's more about how our generation impersonates the world of three decades ago. Nor is it about the Hispanic experience, except to the extent that a night at Chi Chi's is like a night in Tijuana.

Chronicling the life of 1950s teen-idol Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips), La Bamba is an ode to the American middle-class dream. The film opens with the Valenzuela family, a group of Mexican immigrants, working as California migrant workers.

The pace of the opening is disjointed, a feature which carrier through the movie. In fact, the timing is so off at points that it would make John Waters proud. But still, taking it as a given that the screenplay and delivery are weak, the story remains--and you've got to hope that it, at least, will be interesting.

As the Valenzuela family struggles in the fruit fields, in rides Ritchie's brother Bob (Esai Morales) on his motorcycle fresh from a stint in jail. Bob seems determined to prove that he is an early-day version of Prince in Purple Rain. He is the bad son. Ritchie, of course, is the golden boy.

The film begins with Ritchie in love with a Hispanic girl named Rosie, who sleeps with Bob soon after his return. Bob gives his mother a large wad of money, saying that it is time to leave the labor camp for the city. The family departs, with Rosie in tow.

The opportunity for dramatic tension evolves: Rosie has the chance to be the bridge between the two brothers--one struggling to move out of the barrio, the other hopelessly lost and continuously drunk. But Rosie is trapped in Bob's world; Ritchie drops her the moment he finds that she has been with his brother. She is left to Bob, who will beat her, joke of raping her, impregnate her and never marry her.

It is as if, in his own mind, Ritchie has labelled her a barrio girl. Instead, he falls head over heels for Donna the Aryan beauty.

Except Donna isn't really beautiful, and barely pretty. Her main attraction seems to be her Anglo looks, especially her blond hair and blue eyes. That she is wealthy and has a racist father no doubt adds to her appeal.

Ritchie wants to make it with Donna's crowd. So when, late in the movie, Rosie asks Ritchie who he loves, the golden boy replies, "No one you would know." Therein lies Donna's appeal. She's out of Rosie's, and more generally, the barrio's league.

It is Ritchie's ruthless desire for stardom and his utter contempt for all things that threaten the American pop-culture status quo which makes La Bamba so contemptible.

His first displays of rock talent occur, fittingly, in a redneck bar and an American Legion Hall. Ritchie also misses no opportunity to brag of his ignorance of Spanish. He only learns his parents' tongue so that he can rip off a Mexican folksong, jazz it up with a rock beat, and make millions.

Ultimately, the question is whether anyone should care that much about Ritchie Valens. He has no roots, and no commitment to much of anything other than fame, repeating his incantation to anyone who will listen: "One day I will be a star because stars don't fall out of the sky."

It is a sad fact that the most interesting character in the film is the fat Mexican with dark glasses who plays La Bamba in a Tijuana whorehouse. He has an air of authenticity and uniqueness that virtually every other face in the movie lacks. Bob brings Ritchie to the whorehouse, where the soon-to-be star gets the idea of expropriating the song behind the movie's popularity.

Faced with the chance to sign a record contract that would cut his friends in his band loose, Ritchie signs on for the sake of his family. But within days, the former Ricardo Valenzuela has cut his family name loose.

The decision to change his name merely serves as the lead-in for a one liner: "In Hollywood, people change their names as often as they change wives," his manager quips. Well, hey, budumbum to you.

But in a sense, the quip is appropriate. Ritchie can take a nice cynical approach to all matters--the bottom line is fame. Soon Ritchie owns a fancy car, and says he loves to drive fast. It's heady stuff for a 17-year-old. To put it mildly, humility is not one of Ritchie's distinguishing features.

But we are meant to think of Ritchie as some sort of demi-god, besmitten with a tragic curse. You see, it was simply destined that one day Ritchie would die in a plane crash.

The references to planes and crashes are so constant as to be unintentionally amusing. From the film's beginning, Ritchie has nightmares in which he witnesses a mid-air collision between two planes. He takes as his first stage name "Richie Valenzuela and his Flying Guitar."

He receives a lucky Mexican talisman to stop his nightmares of plane crashes. But, ominously, the talisman breaks in a fight with Bob just before the real crash. In fact, to add to the melodrama. Valens ends up on the Buddy Holly-chartered plane which eventually crashes over Iowa only because he wins a coin toss--the first he has ever won in his life.

Americans have lost their sense of subtlety, and the ordinary cliche now passes as mythic. The oratory of Reagan's State of The Union addresses--infused as they are with syrupy-sweet verbiage and tired images of eagles streaking across blue skies and infected the nation's culture the point where heavy-handedness and sentimentality are no longer merely the excesses of grade-school storywriters. They are, instead, the stuff films are made of.

If there is any doubt to this being the case, La Bamba should remove it. The movie seeks the cliche at every point, and, to its credit, finds what it's looking for. But the distressing aspect of the film--aside from the abysmal acting and poor directing--is the politics behind the story.

At present, Hispanic culture is under attack for being too exclusive, too tied to its roots. Miami and large parts of Texas and the West Coast take Spanish as the language of choice almost as often as English.

Right-wing groups trying to enforce assimilation are springing up everywhere. By the looks of La Bamba, they have gotten to some Hollywood directors. Ritchie Valens is the perfect poster child for U.S. English.

Indeed, he's such a true-blue American that his one unfortunate lapse into Spanish lyrics can surely be forgiven. Never mind that it is that same lapse into those foreign words that has prevented him from being forgotten.