February 3, 1959 is commonly known as The Day the Music Died. It was on this day we lost rock pioneers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson. Not too long ago video label Twilight Time issued The Buddy Holly Story on a limited 3000 copy Blu-ray release for the first time. Now they have given the same treatment to the 1987 Ritchie Valens biopic La Bamba. La Bamba was directed by Luis Valdez (The Cisco Kid) and stars Lou Diamond Phillips in his first starring role and arguably becoming responsible for Phillips’ rise into stardom. It seems like most people have seen La Bamba, but if you haven’t here is a brief overview:
Teenager Richard Valenzuela and his family (Mother, girlfriend, and siblings) are migrant workers in California but Ritchie has a dream to become a rock star, primarily as a way to provide for his family in a way he otherwise could not. Ritchie’s half-brother Bob (Esai Morales) shows up after just being released from jail, steals Ritchie’s girlfriend Rosie, and takes the whole family away from this life and moves them into a suburban community in Pacoima, California. Despite his good intentions, Bob never sees himself being loved as much as everybody loves Ritchie and falls into alcoholism. High school student Ritchie spends evenings playing with a couple of bands, never being allowed to lead, and finally decides to hold his own concert to show what he can do. This leads to Ritchie being discovered by a small independent record producer named Bob Keane (played by Joe Pantoliano) who changes his name to Valens and starts selling records. As Ritchie’s music career takes off his tensions with his brother continue to escalate until they finally have a physical altercation. Ritchie leaves to go on the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour that would claim the lives of Valens, Holly, and Richardson.
Musical biopics are extremely hard to make well. There always seems to be something artificial about them or perhaps they are treated with too much reverence to make the people seem real. However, La Bamba achieves what most biopics cannot in making a movie with characters you really care about and the focus on the people rather than the music itself. A movie like The Buddy Holly Story does a good job telling you about Buddy Holly but it has a sort of tunnel vision so you walk away with your focus only on Holly. Conversely, La Bamba serves as an ensemble feature in which we see a full picture of Ritchie’s life. Characters are not just two dimensional stock characters; we actually see multiple sides and a depth not usually seen. Ritchie is a sweet, naïve kid but also has to deal with very real issues such as his ex-girlfriend getting impregnated by his alcoholic brother. His brother (in possibly the best performance of the whole film) has to deal with handling his alcoholism and balancing both his love for and jealousy of his brother. There are a lot of equally tense and sweet moments between the two brothers. We get to see Ritchie dealing with his new manager who is nice but also realistic about the music industry. The performances are all very strong and it comes off as very natural and not forced. There are, of course, a few cheesy moments but it never really delves into unbelievable. Perhaps most unique is the way the film ends. Most biopics end at the death of your main character. The Buddy Holly Story shows the plane take off and then captions what happened. Even last year’s American Sniper ends with an epilogue explaining how Chris Kyle dies, but in La Bamba it skips to the next day when we see the radio announcing news of the crash. We see how his mother and brother deal with the news; we see his girlfriend and manager cope. We witness the funeral and his brother trying to come to terms with his feelings. This end part doesn’t last long but adds a level of emotion and realism we don’t usually see. We see the real impact he had on those around him.
Musically, La Bamba has a lot of little treasures throughout. The primary vocals of Ritchie are performed by Los Lobos, who had a very successful career at the time of filming and do a great job capturing the sound. This is something that was never a secret and Phillips never tried to pass it off as his own voice; however, just as with the strong cast surrounding Phillips there is a strong musical presence in this film. Other musicians appear in performances as shows with Ritchie including Buddy Holly as played by soul musician Marshall Crenshaw and Eddie Cochran being played by Brian Setzer. Including such gifted musicians in supporting roles adds a layer or authenticity you wouldn’t get any other way.
This release must have come from an exceedingly pristine master copy. The AVC-encoded 1080p 1.85:1 presentation is as close to perfect as you can get. The images and color are clear. As somebody that has seen this film numerous times I have never seen quite as nice as it is presented here. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio mix is well done. The musical performances really come alive and the dialog and sounds balance very well. I never heard any popping or audio errors. The disc offers two subtitle options: English SDH and Spanish subtitles.
- Audio commentary with writer-director Luis Valdez, actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, and executive producer Stuart Benjamin – The actors recall their experience and Esai Morales acts like a total goofball, which is an odd contrast to his role in the film
- Audio commentary with producer Taylor Hackford and associate producer Daniel Valdez – This track mostly focuses on the long journey to get the film made. Some interesting tidbits.
- Isolated music track – The volume is somewhat inconsistent on the isolated audio track but it is quite a nice soundtrack for this music fan, especially from the early days of Rock N Roll.
Overall, La Bamba is one of the best-made biopics that have been made. It took the relatively small 8-month career of a rock star and made a touching portrait of the man’s friends and family and his impact on those around him. It is safe for the whole family and all ages with good music and no language or nudity. This Twilight Time release delivers better than most other blu-ray releases I have seen from any distributor. If you are a fan of this movie or biopics/rockn roll movies in general you will enjoy this one. I highly recommend.
La Bamba is currently available from Twilight Time
Fun Fact: The band playing the traditional folk version of “La Bamba” at the club in Tijuana is Los Lobos, the band that actually performed all of the Ritchie Valens music for the film.