La Bamba (1987) Blu-ray Review: Lou Diamond Phillips Debuts As Ritchie Valens

The film that made you rue the day Los Lobos first started saturating radio airplay returns in High-Definition.
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For my money, biographical motion pictures are often comparable to those certain speciality stores in strip malls only a small reserve of individuals really go to. Cartridge World. Yankee Candle. The As Seen On TV Store. You know the type of retail outlet I refer to. You even drive past them on a regular basis, occasionally taking the liberty of briefly peeking through their windows to see if there's actually anything interesting in there, whether or not they truly do have customers or are just cleverly disguised another drug front, or if the employees of the outfit are having crazy mad sex with each other in order to alleviate themselves from the ever-burdening boredom (or perhaps shame) from having to work at such an establishment.

Of course, the key to making a biopic has and always will be a question of rights, consent, popularity, and more than just a bit of some darn good timing. Or a really bored television executive who realizes they either have to make something his faithful flock of retirees will want to watch one bland weekday night after a long hard day spent shopping for rubber stamps, or face the consequences of having to go back behind the counter at the local Brighton shop. However, while there have been several very bad examples of biographical photoplays produced and played for an underwhelmed public whilst their subjects were still alive (see 1961's The George Raft Story or 1957's The Buster Keaton Story), the most important aspect of creating such a movie usually involves a primary party that suffered from a bad case of death towards the end of their existence.

Naturally, I am excluding the Lon Chaney Sr. life story, Man of a Thousand Faces from 1957 - twenty-seven years after the iconic silent star's untimely death - which starred, of all people, James Cagney in the lead. Another example of interesting casting in the realm of movies that not everyone would pay to see lies in the 1987 biopic of '50s chicano music sensation Ritchie Valens, La Bamba. Here, an unknown, decidedly non-Hispanic actor by the name of Lou Diamond Phillips was tapped to bring the doomed writer/performer of three chart-topping tunes in 1958 before being called to the great beyond in the same fatal flight that took the lives of Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson.

Although the placing of a decidedly non-Hispanic new actor in the part of a Hispanic icon would be as questionable today as casting Johnny Depp as The Lone Ranger's faithful sidekick Tonto, things happened to work just a bit differently back in the '80s. And since America was experiencing a resurgence of '50s pop culture, the idea behind making a movie like La Bamba had more priority than getting an actual Latino guy in the lead role. Also, they had Esai Morales to play the actual top-billed role of Bob: Valens' older half-brother, convicted felon, MC member, and just a very tortured soul indeed. Indeed, writer/director Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit) wisely relies on Morales to handle most of the acting in the feature, leaving the still-green Phillips to smile a lot and be a nice guy to everyone.

And what a nice guy he is, too. Even when Bob steals his first girlfriend (Elizabeth Peña), deflowers her, and later knocks her up, Ritchie never so much as bats a 'lash. In fact, he later sets his eyes on the unobtainable love of a richer white girl in school, Donna (Danielle von Zerneck). Meanwhile, Ritchie's career as a musician springs into action when an independent record producer (the great Joe Pantoliano, phoning it in all the way here) snatches up the young talent in order to show him the way to the stars. Sadly, in order to do so, Ritchie will have to get over his fear of flying; a phobia set on by a tragic mid-air collision that occurred over his high school and claimed the life of his best friend (which actually happened, by the way), and which our ill-fated character has repeated nightmares of - in order to remind its audience of the final outcome.

Rosanna DeSoto delivers a fine performance as Ritchie and Bob's mum, Connie, who seems to favor her younger, more-talented, better-behaved boy for some reason - a perfectly normal motif for family maladjustment that only further causes Bob to behave like an ass. (The real Connie Valenzuela can be spotted in one scene; the devoted mother of Valens would pass the same year the movie was released.) Chicano rock back Los Lobos appear and perform most of the film's tunes; their hit remake of Valens' "La Bamba" has since become an overplayed staple on classic rock radio stations. Howard Huntsberry appears briefly as Jackie Wilson, that cool cat Brian Setzer looks like he's more than at home in a cameo as Eddie Cochran, and the one and only Marshall Crenshaw sets the wheels (or wings, as it were) of fate into motion as Buddy Holly during the emotional climax of this film, which wound up being a sizable hit for Columbia Pictures back in '87.

After the folks at Twilight Time released The Buddy Holly Story on Blu-ray, I suppose the HD debut of this title was inevitable. While La Bamba is a better film in most regards, I have to admit it has never been my thing. I first saw La Bamba on VHS when it first hit home video back in the late '80s, and remember remembering very little of the film, as it failed to have much of an impact on me - something that is attributable to the fact that biopics simply don't do it for me. I also hurriedly walk past boutiques in airports, just so we're clear on that point. A renewed disinterest in the film has been allotted to me by Twilight Time, who have given us a lively, lovely 1080p/AVC transfer of the minor classic with a stellar 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track.

Perhaps better known that the movie itself is its soundtrack (including an incidental score by Miles Goodman and Carlos Santana), which is also presented here on its own in a 2.0 DTS-HD MA selection (fans of either the movie or the album it produced will want to pick this title up for that track alone). Yet two additional selections for your aural organs are on-hand in the presence of audio commentaries: the first with actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, writer/director Luis Valdez, and producer Stuart Benjamin; the second with producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez. In addition to the usually present selection of English (SDH) subtitles, Twilight Time have wisely included a Spanish subtitle option for this release (good call, guys and gals).

The only other supplement for this Twilight Time offering is the movie's original theatrical trailer, and the release is wrapped up with another fine set of liner notes by Julie Kirgo, as located in the title's enclosed booklet. La Bamba is limited to a pressing of 3,000 copies and is available while supplies last exclusively from Screen Archives. You will not find this at Yankee Candle, Brighton's, The As Seen On TV Store, or Cartridge World.

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