The Flickers: La Bamba

La Bamba (1987)

Starring Esai Morales, Lou Diamond Phillips, Rosanna DeSoto, Danielle von Zerneck, Elizabeth Peña, Joe Pantoliano, Rick Dees and Brian Setzer. Directed by Luis Valdez. From Columbia Pictures.

All images © New Visions/Columbia or current ownership. No ownership intended by the author.

Richard Valenzuela (Phillips) is a Mexican-American teenager working in Northern California picking fruit with, among others, his mother, Connie (DeSoto) and sweetheart, Rosie (Peña). His half-brother, Bob Morales (Morales), shows up on his motorcycle and talks his mother into moving the family to Pacoima. There, Richie goes to school and falls in love with the new girl, Donna (von Zerneck), Bob and Rosie set up housekeeping and Connie works as a waitress. They are a poor family and tensions are usually high whenever the volatile Bob is around. Richie’s nascent singing career is noticed by label owner and producer Bob Keane (Pantoliano) and together they chart a path to stardom for the teenager Keane christens Ritchie Valens.

Connie Valenzuela (DeSoto) with her sons from different fathers, Bob (Morales, left) and Ritchie (Phillips, right).

The reputation of Ritchie Valens is a complicated one. On the one hand, he died in the plane crash that took Buddy Holly; Valens and the Big Bopper are therefore, if for no other reason, beloved members of rock & roll history. Valens also was quite young and wrote his own songs, one of them a bona fide classic. Also significant is the fact that Ritchie was Mexican-American and therefore is perhaps the originator of what has come to be called “Chicano rock”. But on the other hand is the simple fact that Ritchie wasn’t given the years to confirm his talent or his ability to consistently create hits and one is left to wonder. It is generally assumed that Buddy Holly was possessed of everything needed to continue making an impact on music in whatever way he chose. Conversely, you might be hard pressed to find someone who thinks that the Big Bopper would have been a hit-making machine into the 1960s. In between these two is Ritchie Valens and no one can really be sure that his capabilities would have sustained him through rock’s changes. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, though. This excellent biographical picture certainly does.

The filmmakers behind our movie found a factual and compelling tale to bring to the big screen. The finished film has all the elements required to make it the immensely popular movie it became and the story you see is essentially true. In addition to a great rock & roll story, a great Fifties story and a great reminder of a performer who had somewhat fallen out of the public consciousness, you get a tale of dreams and of family. The story of these two brothers is a significant one as is the tale of a teenager gaining a place that allowed him to provide for his mother and the rest of his family. To – despite his young age – be the means by which the family emerges from poverty.

The film has some great visuals. Additionally, I love that – though he and his family are poor – Ritchie dresses sharply. Dig the scene in which he is ironing his pants for school.

Our screenwriter and director is Luis Valdez, considered a pioneer of theatre inspired by the Chicano movement, a social and political movement by people of Mexican descent to reclaim and embrace their identity. Valdez worked with his producer, Taylor Hackford, to bring this film to fruition. Hackford of Santa Barbara is primarily a director, one who had a good run in the early part of the 1980s. Consecutively, he directed An Officer and a Gentleman, Against All Odds and White Nights and he then helmed the seminal document of Chuck Berry’s career, Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll. After La Bamba, he continued an impressive run of successful films he produced and directed; Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, Proof of Life and 2004’s Ray Charles biopic, Ray, for which Taylor was nominated for two Academy Awards. Taylor Hackford has been married to Helen Mirren since 1997. Taylor and his first wife had a son, Rio Hackford. Rio was a buddy of both Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn and had a small role in The Movie That Changed My Life, Swingers. He also appeared with Vince in Fred Claus. Sadly, Rio Hackford died in 2022 of uveal melanoma. He was only 51.

Esai Morales stars as Ritchie’s older half-brother, Bob Morales. Of Puerto Rican descent, Esai was born in Brooklyn and he received his first notices opposite Sean Penn in Bad Boys (1983). After starring in our film, Morales spent 3 years playing Lt. Tony Rodriquez on NYPD Blue. I watched those years of that show and it was excellent television. Since then, Esai Morales has been steadily employed on screen and has been active in advocacy particularly with the Screen Actor’s Guild. In late 2022, I was thrilled to see the exciting new trailer for Mission: Impossible – Dead Reckoning Part One. How pleasantly shocked I was to see Esai cast as the villain of the two-part film. This is quite a coup for the veteran actor and I’m proud of my man. I will speak more later of Esai’s work in La Bamba. It is a performance that deserves its own post. Never mind – its own website. Its own internet.

Esai Morales as Bob Morales. Note. Perfect.
Lou Diamond Phillips breaks out as Ritchie Valens.

Perhaps the biggest hype around the film upon its release was the casting of unknown Lou Diamond Phillips in the role of Ritchie. Phillips was born in the Philippines to an American father with Scots-Irish and Cherokee blood and a mother who was born in Candelaria, Zambales – I don’t know what either of those words mean. I learned what many of you already know, that Zambales is a province of the Philippines. Lou’s father was a Marine who was stationed in the Philippines and he named his son after legendary US Marine Leland “Lou” Diamond. Our Lou was 25 when he was tapped to play the 17-year-old Valens and it was his first big budget picture. After the success of La Bamba, seems obvious that Phillips would be chosen to appear with Edward James Olmos in Stand and Deliver – but that film was shot before La Bamba and released after. Lou earned a Golden Globe nom for his work on Stand and Deliver and this lead to his inclusion as one of the Young Guns. In this successful film and its sequel, Lou played well the stoic Indian José Chavez y Chavez. But, honestly, despite a star turn in the neo-noir horror film The First Power, the career of Lou Diamond Phillips has been pretty underwhelming. But my regular readers know that this does not necessarily diminish an actor or his contributions. By all accounts, Lou is a good guy and a regular fella and that counts for a lot.

Mexican-American Rosanna DeSoto acquits herself well as the matriarch of the Valenzuela family. Rosanna followed Lou Diamond into Stand and Deliver and I was thrilled one night to catch her on Melrose Place. Notably, she appeared in an episode of Miami Vice playing – once again – the mother of Esai Morales. The episode aired in November of ’87; just months after La Bamba‘s premiere. I love that Danielle von Zerneck is in this film; this places her in two of my Top 25 favourite films as she is also the female lead in Under the Boardwalk (1988). Amazing that she made only 8 feature films and two of them are my faves. Since 1989, she’s been married to James Fearnley of The Pogues.

Pretty Danielle von Zerneck as Donna.
With Elizabeth Peña as Rosie.

Cuban actress Elizabeth Peña does good work and has a nice husky voice as beleaguered Rosie. She went to school in NYC with Esai Morales. Her filmography is perhaps overshadowed by her fine work as a founding member – again with Morales – of the Hispanic Organization of Latin Actors. Sadly, Elizabeth Peña died in 2014 from alcohol abuse. She was 55. Joey Pants (Pantoliano) I’ve written about before. Like von Zerneck, La Bamba is the second of my Top 25 that he is in – he can also be seen in Eddie and the Cruisers.

There are a handful of excellent casting choices here to make note of. Jacksonville’s Rick Dees (b. 1950) plays disc jockey Ted Quillan (1930-2011), a legendary on-air personality from KFWB who did indeed mentor a young Ritchie Valens. Dees is perfect in the role in that he himself is a legendary on-air personality. While working at a station in Memphis, Rick wrote and recorded “Disco Duck”, a ridiculous – and ridiculously successful – novelty single in 1976. The song was so stupid…it went to #1. Today, Dees continues to distribute his syndicated show making it “the longest continuously running countdown featuring pop music in the world”. My number one favourite artist, Brian Setzer, plays his hero Eddie Cochran. This casting is so perfect I could bust out crying. Setzer as Cochran performs a blistering version of “Summertime Blues” in the film and shares a scene with Lou Diamond. Musician Marshall Crenshaw plays a cool Buddy Holly and both he and Howard Huntsberry as Jackie Wilson perform their numbers excellently.

With Joey Pants as Bob Keane. The real Keane was a consultant on the film.

Speaking of the soundtrack, producers made canny decisions when they brought in seasoned professionals to provide the music for the film. Contributing to the score is Carlos Santana and, for the music of Ritchie Valens, Hackford and Valdez contracted East L.A.’s Los Lobos. This was a no-brainer as, musically, both Santana and Los Lobos are direct descendants of Ritchie Valens. Los Lobos’ ability to play straight-ahead rock & roll shines in their versions of “Ooh, My Head”, “Come On, Let’s Go!” and particularly both “Framed”, a Leiber-Stoller tune, and “Charlena”. The soundtrack album reached Number One on the US Pop charts and topped listings in several other countries. Los Lobos cover of the title track was even more popular. “La Bamba” was a Number One song in the US, Canada, the UK and at least six other countries worldwide. Bo Diddley shows up to contribute a new version of his classic “Who Do You Love?”. Additionally, various scenes in the movie are ably fleshed out by stellar Fifties music with Santo & Johnny’s “Sleepwalk” being used poignantly.

Los Lobos appear as the whorehouse band.
I’ve been there!

As a teenager, I went into this film excited to see a movie about rock & roll. I was, in fact, treated to a visually exciting and energetic film that told a poignant story. What I didn’t expect, though, was to be thoroughly blown away by the performance of Esai Morales. The movie became immensely popular for the music and for the discovery of Lou Diamond Phillips but lost in all of that was the fact that you cannot take your eyes off of Morales nor can you not hang on every word that comes out of his mouth.

Fascinating to learn that the real Bob Morales was on set during filming and Esai absorbed all of Bob’s mannerisms and accurately mimicked his accent and way of talking. It is a characterization that is a joy to behold and few others have affected me as much as this one. I had a buddy who would devour this film with me and he and I adopted many of Esai’s expressions, using them as inside jokes and alienating others in our midst; “hey, man, the joint is the joint”, “‘Bony Maronie’? To these sh*t-stompers?”, “That’s for sh*t! I mean, Valenzuela was our dad’s name. You can’t just cut it in half”, “Let’s just go!” and so many others. Not so much what he said but how he said it. It was musical, just as musical as the many great songs in the film.

There’s an excellent and comical sequence depicting a family member shooting home video. Watching Bob cut up and interact with Rosie says so much about his character.

The love and the conflict between Ritchie and Bob is played to perfection, never descending into cliché. In real life, Bob Morales was a biker and a small-time criminal, drug user and heavy drinker. Esai’s Bob, though, is never sinister though many of his actions are indefensible. Seeing this accurate depiction of himself on-screen must have been difficult for the real Bob. In a fine scene, Ritchie plays a few songs at a bar with only Bob accompanying him on drums. Next day, Bob floats the idea of the two of them touring the bars together. Ritchie ends up saying anybody but Bob. When Bob asks what he means, Ritchie says he should stay home nights with Rosie and the two almost come to blows. Ritchie’s debut concert comes at the American Legion but midway through a drunken Bob comes in and starts a brawl. Afterwards, Connie asks “how could you do this to Ritchie?!”. At this, Bob blows up and yells significantly “I did this to me, OK?!”. When Rosie tells Bob she’s pregnant, his cold response is a dismissive “it’s not m’first…or m’last”. And in a savage scene, a raging drunk Bob pounds on the door wanting to see his daughter but neither Connie nor Rosie will let him in in his condition. Again, Ritchie is fuel added to the fire when Connie says she has enough to worry about with Ritchie. This sends Bob over the edge – “what about me?!” – and he tears the screen door off its hinges and throws a bottle in the window bringing tears to the ladies inside.

But Bob’s artistic side is seen, as well. His drawings win a contest and the prize is not money to help with the baby coming but a drafting table to continue his pursuit – but Rosie won’t have it set up in their small trailer. Bob storms out – “you don’t respect any sh*t I do!”. And Bob cares enough about his kid brother to take him down to Tijuana to “cure” his mooning over Donna. Ritchie wakes up in a strange and barren place and here again Bob is trying to help by taking him to see a mysterious Mexican wise man. When the two get home, Connie is livid as – in the night – Rosie went into labour and had her baby – “she had a girl. We named her Brenda”. She rails at her boys calling them sinvergüenzas (“a brazen scoundrel; shameless rogue”) and Bob bolts. “Go ahead, go play with your bike!”. The boys finally have a major blow-out with Bob lamenting the fact that the boys’ father earmarked Ritchie for greatness while Bob was left to pick up the leftovers. Esai makes you feel Bob’s pain while at the same time for much of the film he is taking you on an enjoyable ride.

It’s so hard to play drunk well. Esai nails it.
Bob’s combative posture – and great shirt – are on display with the brothers poised for a showdown.

In a featurette accompanying the DVD, seeing the real Bob Morales speak about how little he thought of Ritchie’s pursuit of music at first and wondering how Bob must have felt when his brother was taken from him certainly gives the viewer pause. This feeling is borne out so well in the work of Esai Morales in this film. In the film, hearing of his brother’s death, Bob is at first disbelieving. Watching him console his mother and the final scene on the bridge are handled well and your heart goes out to Bob. Remember, too, that Bob Morales, Connie Valenzuela and the other family members had to somehow go on, dealing with pain but also having to make a living in the wake of Ritchie’s death. All of these conflicts and emotions are displayed with wonderful precision by Esai Morales, the rest of the cast and by director Valdez’s finely crafted scenes. There is a freewheeling comic nature to Morales’s acting but he is also able to sound the deeper notes needed for the role. Add to all this the Bob of the film’s connection to Mexico. His travels there, his spiritual father and his embrace of his heritage are captivating, especially for a gringo like me who has always been fascinated by this culture.

Not only is the performance of Esai Morales one of my favourites, I would even put it up there – in terms of sheer watchability – with the best work of the likes of De Niro, Pacino, Nicholson and others. I joke that this film is all about Esai but that’s not exactly true. I’d say 80% of the appeal of La Bamba comes from watching Morales as Bob but the other 20% is a lot of good movie. You get the true story of an unheralded rock & roll pioneer, a film highlighting a Latino family and way of life, a glossy Fifties flick with great music and you are, again, treated to one of the finest performances in all of film. It all adds up to great movie, one of my very first favourites.

The End


  1. You analysis of Esai Morales’ performance really resonated – I haven’t seen this movie for a few years but I clearly remember being blown away by his acting masterclass. Your point about life going on for Ritchie’s family is a great one – we at least can escape after the end credits.

    I remember an interview with Lou Diamond Phillips who obviously made a real connection with the Valenzuela family when preparing for the film, and they were present at some of the filming. I can’t recall the exact circumstances, but I think from memory they got so involved in the scene where the plane is about to depart, and there was some discussion about who was going to get a seat and who was to be left behind, that at least one family member interrupted the shooting to beg Lou Diamond Phillips not to get on the plane.

    Gary Busey recalled an equally intense experience when Maria Elena Holly was present during some performance scenes in The Buddy Holly Story. (Gary was convinced that Buddy Holly was right there in the room with them). I don’t think any of the families involved ever really came to terms with it, which is understandable, including JP Richardson’s unborn son, Jay. I feel for the pilot Roger Peterson (and his family as well). He was only 21 or 22 at the time, and I think was probably placed in an impossible position.

    Really enjoyed this article, thanks, Gary.

    • Yes, many reports indicate that the Valenzuela family were not only very involved in the production of La Bamba but they were quite emotionally invested, as well. The human angle of these stories need to be considered. Because Holly’s widow heard about her husband’s death first on the radio and promptly miscarrying prompted changes in the way deaths were handled in the future with the family being notified first – something you can’t believe wasn’t always the case.

      Thanks for reading and your comment, brother.

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