This biographical film primarily depicts the turbulent and short life of Chicano rock ‘n’ roller Ritchie Valens – before a plane crash in 1959 brought not only his but also the lives of fellow musicians Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper to a tragic end. It was an event which became known as ‘The Day the Music Died’. To mark the 30th anniversary of La Bamba, the movie – starring Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Valens – has just been released in Dual Format Edition.

It goes without saying that one can cram in only so much about the career of rock ‘n’ roll star Ritchie Valens before he lost his life in a plane crash on Feb. 3rd 1959? Consequently the movie focuses as much on the turbulent private life of Valens as it does on his aspirations of becoming a recognised rock ‘n’ roller… although the sadly all too brief chapter of his phenomenal career finally is of course portrayed too.
Lou Diamond Phillips gives an intense performance as the doomed musician who was born Richard Steven Valenzuela on May 13th in the Hispanic neighbourhood of Pacoima in LA’s San Fernando Valley. His parents being of Mexican descent, little Ritchie was surrounded by traditional mariachi and flamenco guitar music from an early age. Add to that a generous dose of R&B which was often played on the radio and it’s no wonder that he initially left-handed Ritchie cultivated ambitions to become a rock ‘n’ roll star!
The movie kicks off with a re-occurring nightmare that plagued Ritchie since childhood: in 1957 two planes collided mid-air and the ensuing debris killed several of his schoolmates who happened to be on the school’s playground. Little Ritchie was at this granddad’s funeral at the time though it didn’t change the fact that henceforth he suffered from a severe fear of flying which makes his own death from a plane crash only two years later all the more ironic and creepy!
The first half of the film focuses on the early teenage years of Ritchie who by then was simply known as Richard Valenzuela. Frequent spats with his rather unstable and bad-tempered half brother Bob Morales (a fiery performance from Esai Morales), his over-ambitious and doting mother Connie (Rosanna De Soto) and of course his eternal love for high school sweetheart Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck) who inspired him to write his first hit ‘Donna’…everything is told here, including the constant fight between Bob and his girlfriend Rosie (Elizabeth Pena) who happens to be Ritchie’s former flame. Also touched upon is the temporary friction between Ritchie and Donna, courtesy of her dad disapproving of her ‘Mexican-American’ boyfriend.

Later on we witness how Ritchie’s musical career slowly but surely took off after his first stage experiences with local band The Silhouettes and his record deal with Hollywood’s Del-Fi Records - offered to him by record label owner/president Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), who also changed his protégés name to the more commercial sounding Ritchie Valens.
The sequences in which Phillip performs on stage are electrifying and it’s David Hidalgo of Mexican-American folk-rock band Los Lobos who provides the singing voice. Los Lobos are also featured in the closing credits when Phillips ‘sings’ once more Valens’ signature song ‘La Bamba’ (which is in fact an old Mexican folk ditty).
The fatal plane crash is never shown, we merely see Valens, the Big Bopper (both suffered from a cold) and of course Buddy Holly climb into the small plane after their joint performance in Clear Lake, Iowa. The following day the news of the horrific accident is broken to some family members via news on the radio, while Donna learns of Ritchie’s untimely demise through her school friends.

The bonus material consists mainly about the ’Making of…’ though it’s interesting to note that apart from Los Lobos other prominent musicians like Carlos Santana appear, as well as Stray Cats’ Brian Setzer in the role of Eddie Cochrane.
Valens’ real-life mother Connie (who died three months after the movie was released) and Bob Morales also make an appearance. Shame the bonus material doesn’t include more about the real Ritchie Valens and the aftermath of the plane crash.