I liked the song when it played on the radio while I was a senior in high school, but I never knew anything about it, who wrote it, who sang it. I only began to get a clue when the movie came out.
Thirty years on, and it’s time to take a look back at this one. Actually, it’s 60 years since the story unrolled. It’s La Bamba, about the short career of teen rock star Ritchie Valens. More than that, it’s about the peak of rock and roll in the 1950s. The film is a tour de force of late ’50s rock and roll. La Bamba was distributed by Columbia Pictures, and is available for view this month on Hulu. I’m getting details from Wikipedia.
The opening scene depicts an actual event. Children are playing in a schoolyard in Pacoima, north of Los Angeles. On 31 January 1957 two aircraft collided above the area, and debris from one of the planes landed in the schoolyard, killing three students.
Historical accuracy is lost right about here. The two aircraft shown in the film are not the two that collided and crashed.
But it’s only a dream. Richard Steven Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) was not at the school that day. He was at his grandfather’s funeral. He wakes from the nightmare in a migrant labor camp, where his mother, Connie Valenzuela (Rosanna DeSoto) is calling him to get up and get to work picking oranges.
It’s a dismal future for Ritchie, but his half brother Roberto “Bob” Morales (Esai Morales) comes riding up on an Indian motorcycle. He is lately out of prison on drug charges, and he brings money to get the family out of the migrant camp. He also moves in on Ritchie’s main squeeze, Rosie (Elizabeth Peña), gets her pregnant, and abuses her.
Yeah, that romance is not going anywhere. Donna’s father objects to the romance and is a perpetual roadblock to young love. Ritchie plays the guitar and joins a local band. However, the band’s leader keeps him in the background.
But Ritchie books a concert in the local VFW hall, and the band leader will have none of it. The band goes on with Ritchie playing lead, and it’s a huge success. One of those enjoying the music is Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), eager to record Ritchie’s music.
An early success has Ritchie being invited by the manager to sing at a cowboy bar. You have to think a Chicano kid playing at a redneck hangout is not going to fly, but Ritchie apparently knows his audience, and he opens belting out “Oh, Boy!” by Buddy Holly from Lubbock, Texas. By the time he’s finished the joint is jumping.
Signed to Del-Fi Records without the band and having his name changed to Ritchie Valens, he hits the big time, singing Donna on American Bandstand, his classmates, including Donna, back in Pacoima watching on TV. We see him hitting the big time in New York with famous headliners of the day.
His career is famously short. Just eight months after hitting the big time he is touring with Buddy Holly and catching a flight out of Clear Lake, Iowa. Despite his fear of flying, due to the Pacoima tragedy, he takes the offer.
The plane will only carry four, including the pilot. J.P. Richardson, Jr., The Big Bopper (Stephen Lee), is going, and Holly flips a coin to decide whether to take guitarist Tommy Allsup or Ritchie. Ritchie calls heads, it’s heads. Allsup loses the toss and is the only survivor of this scene. According to Allsup, Ritchie remarks it’s the only coin toss he ever won. Ritchie was only 17.
Take special note: Waylon Jennings gave up his seat to Richardson, because The Big Bopper had the flu.
The movie stresses the tension between Ritchie and his brother Bob. Bob is shown as continually resentful of Ritchie’s success while he continues to drive his own life into the toilet. Apparently we have Bob to thank for the song. He took Ritchie to a club in Tijuana, where the band was playing it.
Para bailar La Bamba
Para bailar La Bamba
Se necesita una poca de gracia
To dance La Bamba a little grace is necessary.
Ritchie did not speak Spanish but an aunt from Mexico taught him the words. And the rest was magic. This is going to take some people way back. Are you one of them?