La Bamba (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Sep 29, 2023
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
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La Bamba (Blu-ray Review)


Luis Valdez

Release Date(s)

1987 (September 26, 2023)


Columbia Pictures (The Criterion Collection – Spine #1193)
  • Film/Program Grade: A-
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: A
  • Extras Grade: A

La Bamba (Blu-ray)

Buy it Here!


Ritchie Valens was at the height of his popularity in 1958 with three hit records and a promising career ahead when he died in a plane crash. La Bamba tells the story of his rise from the farm labor camps of California, his strained relationship with his half-brother, and his rise to rock ’n roll headliner.

Richard Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips, Young Guns) was raised by a Chicano family determined to assimilate into American life. He’s a conscientious teenager who goes to high school and works in the orange groves. His mother, Connie (Rosanna DeSoto, Stand and Deliver), is a hard-working waitress who recognizes her son’s talent as a singer and guitarist and pushes him to reach beyond the Latino community with his music. His older half-brother, Bob Morales (Esai Morales, Bad Boys), is the opposite of Ritchie—a motorbike-riding carouser and womanizer, often drunk and mean, who’s deeply jealous of Ritchie’s talent and emerging success as a rock ’n’ roll artist.

Because Valens had such a brief career and died so young, writer/director Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit) departed from the typical “and then he did” show biz biography to focus primarily on the relationship between the two brothers. Bob’s antisocial behavior creates most of the film’s conflict. Bob is family and Ritchie has always looked up to him, but Bob’s recklessness and resentments take their toll and strain the family’s patience.

There’s a bit of friction between Ritchie and the manager, Bob Keane (Joe Pantolino, Running Scared), who discovers him. Ritchie isn’t pleased to have his name altered or to do take after take of the same song in the recording studio in a grueling recording session, each take matching every other so that the best parts of each can be edited together. But he recognizes Bob’s expertise and soon takes his advice.

A secondary conflict occurs when Ritchie, still in high school, falls for Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck, Under the Boardwalk). Donna is equally smitten but her father forbids her to see Ritchie because of his Mexican heritage. Their on-again, off-again romance is portrayed amid scenes of Ritchie’s escalating career and rousing musical numbers.

The title song, and Valens’ biggest hit, is based on a Mexican folk tune he adapted to his distinctive rock ’n’ roll style. He sang the lyrics in the original Spanish even though he knew only English and had to learn the lyrics phonetically. The soundtrack features Los Lobos performing La Bamba, Donna, Come On, Let’s Go and other songs, with Phillips doing a spot-on job of lip-syncing.

Director Valdez has created the atmosphere of the farm labor camps, where the crowds of Chicanos earn low wages picking fruit and vegetables from the California fields. Vintage cars, costumes, and hairstyles add to the period atmosphere. One of Alan Freed’s famous rock ’n’ roll multi-star extravaganzas at the Brooklyn Paramount is staged with hundreds of extras in the audience cheering and applauding, replicating the excitement of those shows. And a brief black-and-white clip from American Bandstand of Dick Clark introducing Ritchie Valens is edited together with footage of Phillips performing.

Phillips, 25 at the time, does a good job of channeling the 18-year-old Valens with a combination of wide-eyed wonder, palpable drive to break out of his poor circumstances, and devotion to his family.

Esai Morales is so strong in the role of Bob Morales, he dominates every scene he’s in. Whether riding his hopped-up motorcycle, ruining a showcase performance by Ritchie, brooding and jealous of Ritchie, or pouring out his heart to his mother, he’s powerful, often scary, and always intense. His character contrasts sharply with good son and family guy Ritchie.

The women in the film are showcased nicely. Elizabeth Pena as Rosie, Bob’s unhappy wife, and Rosanna DeSoto as Ritchie’s mom, both convey strength, frustration, and fury, with temperaments that range from maternal to passionate. That both actresses can so readily switch from one emotion to another is testament to their skill.

The Buddy Holly Story, Elvis, and Great Balls of Fire also deal with rock stars of the 1950s, but La Bamba has the tough task of making a short life and career worthy of feature treatment. Ending with Valens, Buddy Holly, and the Big Bopper as they board the small plane that would fly them into a late-night blizzard on February 3, 1959—the Day the Music Died—director Valdez concentrates on Valens’ deep roots in the Chicano community, ongoing conflict with a family member, up-close brush with racism, and climb to success. He brings to the forefront a personality known to many only as one of the three rock stars in that plane crash.

La Bamba was shot by director of photography Adam Greenberg on 35 mm color film with Arriflex cameras with spherical lenses and presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The Blu-ray print was restored in 4K by Sony Pictures Entertainment. According to information contained in the enclosed booklet, “Scanning was done in 4K on a Scanity film scanner... from the 35 mm original camera negative. Digital image restoration was completed by the Prasad Corporation in Chennai, India.” Picture quality is fantastic. The color is bold and vibrant, and outdoor scenes are especially rich. Ritchie and Bob running up a hill, scenes in a labor camp, and Ritchie and Donna driving in his convertible are filled with lush greens, bright yellows, vivid reds, and soft blues. Details such as strands in Ritchie’s hair, wooden shower stalls, recording studio paraphernalia, Bob’s crowded trailer, and Rosie’s tear-streaked face are well delineated. Clarity is pristine, grain quality exceptional, and there are no imperfections to speak of, making the Blu-ray a true visual treat.

The soundtrack is English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH and Spanish subtitles are available. The audio restoration and 5.1 upmix, according to information in the enclosed booklet, were completed at Chace Audio in Burbank, California and sourced from the 35 mm original (restored) magnetic tracks. Dialogue is clear and distinct, even when Bob is drunk and slurs some of his words. The music sequences sound great, especially La Bamba, performed in front of a large audience. Cheering is well balanced with Ritchie’s singing and the band accompanying him. In scenes of Ritchie and Donna driving, ambient street noise is heard in the background. The soundtrack features songs of the era, including Goodnight My Love, Framed, The Paddi Whack Song, We Belong Together, Come On, Let’s Go, Chantilly Lace, and Tweedledee Dee.

Bonus materials on the Region A Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection include the following:

  • Audio Commentary with Luis Valdez, Lou Diamond Phillips, Esai Morales, and Stuart Benjamin
  • Audio Commentary with Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez
  • New Interview with Director Luis Valdez (27:14)
  • Conversation Between Valdez and Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (42:49)
  • Remembering Ritchie (20:09)
  • Audition Footage:
    • Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales (13:16)
    • Elizabeth Pena and Rosanna DeSoto (6:27)
  • Theatrical Trailer (1:27)

Commentary #1 – Recorded in 1998, director Luis Valdez, actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, and executive producer Stuart Benjamin discuss the preparation of La Bamba and specific scenes, with interesting anecdotes sprinkled in. Many of the extras in the film’s early scenes are from the Valenzuela and Valdez families. Morales comments on how important Bob Morales was in shaping his performance. They discuss the art of lip syncing to a recorded track. Valens had three hits in eight months. Getting the project off the ground presented difficulties because many people in the industry didn’t remember who Ritchie Valens was. They proudly note the film made $100 million worldwide.

Commentary #2 – Producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez (brother of director Luis Valdez) discuss having spoken about a Ritchie Valens movie ten years before they actually started the project. During that time, there were four attempts that didn’t work out. Originally, Daniel Valdez was supposed to play Valens but with the passage of time, he aged out. The producers didn’t think Luis Valdez would be interested in directing because he was involved in theater, but he turned out to be enthusiastic because “the whole movie is a family experience.” The labor camp was created from memories of Valdez’ childhood. The people there had little money but they had dreams. The casting for Ritchie was nationwide. Phillips originally auditioned for the role of Bob, but the producers asked him to study the script and come back to audition for Ritchie. He had the right qualities and was hired. Los Lobos was hired to record the music for the film. They discuss some of the political history of the labor camps and of the various immigrant groups that faced prejudice and assimilated into American life, their cultures mixing with other cultures.

Luis Valdez Interview – Director Valdez talks about the legacy of La Bamba as well as how his work as a theater director and community organizer influenced the making of the film. He was born into a migrant farm-working family. His father worked as a mule driver in Cimarron, the first Western to win an Academy Award. There was a lot of story telling in his family gatherings. He made up stories drawn from his family life and became immersed in doing plays in the labor camps. Theater became a tool of Cesar Chavez’ struggle to organize the farm workers. Plays were political in nature. Zoot Suit was his first feature film and was shot on 35 mm film on a budget of $1.2 million. His team set him on the “right path” by advising him, “Don’t date your own stuff.” Valdez was fascinated by the story of Ritchie Valens. The Valens family was videotaped so Valdez knew how to portray them in the movie. Bob Morales told Valdez to depict him the way he was back then, admitting he was wild, drunk, and often out of control. The essence of the movie is the Cain and Abel theme between two brothers.

Conversation Between Luis Valdez and Filmmaker Robert Rodriguez – This is an episode of the series The Director’s Chair, hosted by Robert Rodriguez, who speaks with Valdez about his storied career depicting Latino identity in the arts. They speak about Ricardo Montalban, one of the first actors to represent Latinos in the film industry, who paved the way for many to follow. Valdez discusses his beginnings in theater and producing Zoot Suit, turning the stage play into a movie. La Bamba had great momentum in the planning, taking only a year to prepare and cast. Esai Morales was a natural to play Bob, but weeks before the cameras were set to roll, the producers still had no Ritchie. Over 600 actors were seen in a nationwide search until Lou Diamond Phillips was cast weeks before filming was to begin. The director thought about changing Phillips’ name to something that sounded more Latino. Valdez’ The Cisco Kid was inspired by all the Westerns he had seen as a kid. Host Rodriguez reads a series of questions from other directors, and Valdez discusses the relationship of passion to work.

Remembering Ritchie – This making-of featurette from 1987 contains behind-the-scenes footage with brief comments by Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales. Members of Ritchie Valens’ family are shown. Valdez refers to the fatal plane crash that killed Valens and two other rock ’n’ roll singers.

Audio Footage – These tapes are of poor quality and look as if they have been duplicated many times. The four actors perform key scenes from the script, wearing regular street clothes in a nondescript room. Sound quality is poor.

Booklet – The enclosed accordion-style booklet contains the essay American Dreaming, Chicano Style by Yolanda Machado, two photos, list of cast and crew, and information about the film’s restoration.

La Bamba is a show biz biopic rich in music. Lou Diamond Phillips, who differs physically from the real Ritchie Valens, nonetheless channels the singer and contributes a solid portrait of a young man pursuing his dream to become one of the first Latino celebrities to be embraced by mainstream audiences.

- Dennis Seuling