Ritchie Valens was taken too soon. The Chicano rock and roll star was a few months shy of turning 18 when he died in the fatal airplane crash in 1959 that also took the lives of Buddy Holly and J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson — the day that, as the song says, the music died. Known now for his hit song “La Bamba,” the California-born musician was only getting started when he passed. In just eight months he’d also see his other two songs, “Donna” and “Come On, Let’s Go” climb up the Billboard charts. After his meteoric rise and tragic death, it was only a matter of time before his brief life would be given the Hollywood treatment.
That’s precisely what happened when, in 1987, audiences finally got a chance to see this Chicano icon get the music biopic treatment. La Bamba, directed by Luis Valdez boasts an amazing ensemble. Not only did the film introduce Lou Diamond Phillips (as Valens) to the world, but it also featured ace performances by Esai Morales (as Valens’ half-brother), Rosanna DeSoto (as Valens’ mother), and Elizabeth Peña (as his first girlfriend). With a killer soundtrack courtesy of the Mexican-American rock band Los Lobos, the movie has since become a Chicano classic.
But how was it received back when it first premiered? To celebrate the film’s 30-year anniversary, we did some research and unearthed some of the initial reviews that greeted this love letter to Valens’ music. Unsurprisingly, they mostly singled out Phillips’ performance, Valdez’s empathetic touch, and the biopic’s vibrant music. Take a walk down memory lane by reading a few of these original reviews below.
New York Times
“It’s a sad story, but La Bamba doesn’t make the mistake of being morbid. It concentrates instead on Valens’s nice-guy side and on his love of rock-and-roll. Luis Valdez, who wrote and directed La Bamba, also devotes a lot of attention to Valens’s competitive relationship with his half-brother, Bob Morales (Esai Morales), but Bob is a one-note boorish character – he drinks, picks fights, sells drugs, steals Valens’s girl and then mistreats her – and this part of the film is its weakest. It’s much better in capturing the Chicano world from which Valens came, and the music (performed vibrantly on the soundtrack by Los Lobos) that he made.” — Janet Maslin
“La Bamba is engrossing throughout and boasts numerous fine performances. In Lou Diamond Phillips’ sympathetic turn, Valens comes across as a very fine young man, caring for those important to him and not overawed by his success. Rosana De Soto scores as his tireless mother, and Elizabeth Peña has numerous dramatic moments as Bob’s distraught mate.” — Variety Staff
Chicago Sun Times
“This is a good small movie, sweet and sentimental, about a kid who never really got a chance to show his stuff. The best things in it are the most unexpected things: the portraits of everyday life, of a loving mother, of a brother who loves and resents him, of a kid growing up and tasting fame and leaving everyone standing around at his funeral shocked that his life ended just as it seemed to be beginning.” — Roger Ebert
The Washington Post
“Lou Diamond Phillips, the star of La Bamba, Luis Valdez’s film about the life of rock ‘n’ roll singer-songwriter Ritchie Valens, has the broad, noble face of a Mayan deity. It’s a face with great inherent beauty and dignity, a great face for the camera, a great face for myth-making. And rock ‘n’ roll myth-making is what Valdez is up to.” — Hal Hinson
“Luis Valdez’s retelling of pop meteor Ritchie Valens’ fleeting late-’50s fame is a notch below canonization. But La Bamba, with its unabashed only-the-good-die-young mythology, is also a glorious, drug-free shot in the arm for romantics. Valens’ life becomes a rock ‘n’ roll fairytale of saintly ambition — and the “saint” here is debuting actor Lou Diamond Phillips, all goodwill and sunny smiles as Valens.” — Desson Howe
“The musical side of things is handled surprisingly well. Fresh-faced Phillips mimes convincingly to Los Lobos’ admirably faithful cover versions of the songs, and there’s a show-stealing rendition of Jackie Wilson’s ‘Lonely Teardrops’ by Howard Huntsberry.” — Nigel Floyd
The Morning Call
“In addition to telling the story of Valens’ success and delving into the conflict between he and his brother, “La Bamba” deals with interracial dating and ethnic assimilation. Ritchie’s infatuation with WASP blonde Donna Ludwig (Danielle von Zerneck) angers her father. Only Ritchie’s success finally overcomes social barriers. The money-plus-fame-equals-acceptance equation may not be to everyone’s politics, but it’s there nonetheless. The root of racism is economics, the movie implies.” — Paul Willistein