`La Bamba' tracks a short but shining rock-and-roll career

Rock-and-roll biographies make terrific movies. I have fond memories of pictures like ``American Hot Wax,'' about disc jockey Alan Freed, and ``The Buddy Holly Story.'' Holly and Freed both crossed the path of Ritchie Valens, a lesser light but a shining one. Like many a musician in the 1950s - rock's golden age - he earned fame with a mere handful of successful songs. Two of them, ``Donna'' and ``La Bamba,'' appeared on a single disc (a ``double-sided hit,'' as the DJs used to say) that made Valens a star with millions of teens, including me. He died while still in his teens, in a 1959 plane crash that also took Holly and a popular singer-comedian called the Big Bopper.

``La Bamba,'' a sweet and funny account of Valens's rise to fame, is charged with rock-and-roll energy. It also shows a keen respect for the singer's Latin roots, and for the abiding sense of family that stayed with him throughout his short life.

It's corny, and it has enough vulgarity to merit a PG-13 rating. But it's so fresh and sincere that it's also a pleasure. Summer films don't come much better. Or more newsy. Taking the movie's Hispanic background seriously, Columbia Pictures is breaking from tradition and releasing it simultaneously in three versions: spoken in English, dubbed into Spanish, and subtitled in Spanish. This contrasts with the usual studio practice of aiming for a Spanish-speaking audience months after a movie's first release.

The picture starts in a migrant-labor camp where our hero, still known as Richard Valenzuela, spends his days at sweaty work and his nights in pop-music dreams. Bob, his long-absent brother, roars back into his life with a noisy motorcycle and enough cash to move the family to a modest southern California community.

Ritchie eats and sleeps with his guitar. His enthusiastic mother cheers on his musical efforts. Bob offers encouragement but gives him a hard time, too, seducing his girlfriend and tempting him toward bad habits.

The road to stardom runs uphill, of course. Ritchie joins a rock group and the kids make fun of his beat-up equipment. He plays at the local saloon and nobody pays attention. Mom gets him a gig that the whole town comes to - and Bob gets drunk, spoiling everyone's time.

Things aren't smooth on the romance front, either. Ritchie falls for a schoolmate named Donna, but her father doesn't like his swarthy complexion, which looks ``Eye-talian'' to him. On top of this, Bob gets jealous of Ritchie's success, treats his family like dirt, and turns into a real drunk.

You can't stop a kid with a song in his heart, though, especially in the movies. Ritchie signs with a small-time record producer, learns the basics of the business, and starts to make a name for himself - literally, with Valenzuela cut down to Valens and Ritchie now spelled with that jaunty ``t.'' Soon he's a chart-topper, and even Donna's dad stops being a problem, especially after Ritchie names his biggest hit after her. The future looks bright - and would be, if not for the rickety plane he climbs into one wintry night in the middle of a barnstorming tour.

Some scenes of ``La Bamba'' are in dubious taste, as when Bob spirits Ritchie to a Mexican brothel for a night of carousing. But such episodes are softened by Ritchie's good-hearted presence - even at the brothel, where he makes a beeline for the bandstand and dotes on the musicians, who belt out the movie's title song with infectious gusto.

``La Bamba'' has plenty of trite touches, too, especially when it comes to airplanes. The picture starts with a vision of a crashing plane, and similar images crop up continually. Ritchie even predicts that a crash will kill him and refuses to fly during the early stages of his career.

The screenplay is anything but subtle on these matters. Still, it's easy to forgive the thudding omens and ironies, since they appear in such a life-affirming context. The purpose of ``La Bamba'' is not to mourn Valens's death but to celebrate his life, with special attention to the great joy he found in music.

``La Bamba'' also pays unprecedented tribute to the vitality of Valens's ethnic heritage. Ritchie doesn't know much about his family's Mexican roots, and Spanish is Greek to him. Yet the film makes it clear that Latin folkways, mores, and traditions play a strong and positive role in his life, especially in his family relations.

This culminates near the end of the picture, when Ritchie has an explosive verbal and physical showdown with his dissolute brother - yet is ready afterward not only to forgive Bob, but to embrace and love him all the more, simply because family bonds are sacred. Yes, the episode is pure corn. It's also uplifting in ways that today's movies could learn a lot from.

``La Bamba'' was directed by Luis Valdez from his own screenplay. Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales head the cast as Ritchie and Bob, getting solid support from Rosana De Soto as Mrs. Valenzuela and Elizabeth Pena as Bob's wife. Other supporting roles are capably handled. Valens's songs, and other hits of the period, are marvelously performed by Los Lobos, with superb lead-guitar work that perfectly captures the unique flavor of '50s pop. The sound track also hums with vintage hits by rockers ranging from Bo Diddley and Little Richard to Santo & Johnny and Johnny & Joe.

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