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.