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ACCENT ON THE LATINO MARKET : ‘La Bamba’: Flooded With Irresistible Music Yet Void of Raw Energy

Times Film Critic

Luis Valdez, who wrote and directed “La Bamba” (citywide), the story of rock ‘n’ roller Ritchie Valens, has flooded his movie with the driving, irresistible music of Los Lobos; he has reached deep into personal memory for authentic details of migrant worker camps and cracker-box San Fernando Valley houses, and in Lou Diamond Phillips he has found an exceptional young unknown to play Valens.

With all these strengths, the wonder is that the movie isn’t full of raw energy, that it’s for the most part polite melodrama, no more electrifying than the ordinary ‘50s musical bio-pic. The charisma that Ritchie Valens had and the kind of energy that must have been there to propel a young Mexican-American from the picking fields and orchards into the world of music is missing. You can have a perfectly pleasant time at “La Bamba” but you come out still hungry to understand the forces that shaped him.

Part of the trouble is the material. Just how much can you do with the story of a sweet kid who had three hit records in an 8-month career and died at 17 in a plane crash that also killed rockers Buddy Holly and J.P. (the Big Bopper) Richardson?

The film makers have simplified Valens’ struggling days. He was a Chicano in Southern California in the late 1950s, renamed Valens from Valenzuela; part of his appeal was how un-Latin he looked, with his freckles; his high school sweetheart was the quintessentially WASP-ish Donna (Danielle von Zerneck). There must have been a crunch somewhere as one culture accommodated to another, and a lot of that is gone.

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There are hints: the objections of Donna’s father to their dating, but miraculously that seems to fade with Valens’ first success. We get a more powerful look with the film’s portrait of Valens’ half-brother Bob, (Esai Morales) Latino machismo incarnate, and his knockabout relationship with his girlfriend Rosie (Elizabeth Pena), but there needs to be more. The pride and the power that Valdez poured into “Zoot Suit,” his angry theater piece, has been buffed into mainstream gentility.

Valdez opens with a grainy, dreamlike sequence on a school playground, reverberating with the sound of planes flying low overhead and turned into a nightmare as two of them collide and wreckage rains down on the children. It’s the film’s fate motif--a true, recurring dream that Valens had about the death of a schoolmate--and a metaphor that successfully keeps Valens’ own fate in our minds.

But Valdez turns his visual stroke into flatfooted dialogue: “I want to be a star,” the shining-eyed Ritchie tells Donna as he recounts his nightmare, “ ‘cause stars don’t fall out of the sky, do they?” “La Bamba” must struggle for its drama. Valens was, by all accounts, an especially nice kid, considerate of his mother (Rosana De Soto), decent to the women around him, practically noble in dealing with the jealousies that cropped up with his older half-brother. What conflict the film presents comes in the push and pull with Bob, overshadowed by his younger brother by the time Ritchie was only 16. Although Morales plays him eloquently, Bob, with his corrosive self-pity and his drunken maudlin rages, isn’t much of a figure on which to pin our sympathies.

There is the music, however, great dollops of ‘50s songs, and it lifts the movie when the dialogue and the earnest-but-uninspired direction keeps it earthbound. Some of these musical moments are wonderful: Friday night dances held in neighborhood Valley garages with earnest, imitative young bands; Valens’ beginnings--with his mother’s unflagging support--in neighborhood taverns and veterans’ memorial halls. Los Lobos’ David Hidalgo supplies Valens’ voice and although Lou Diamond Phillips doesn’t have the real Valens magnetism, he has his sweetness and he covers the singing and guitar playing nicely.

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Joe Pantoliano is fine as Bob Keene, who heard in Valens a sound that might interest record companies, and who drove him to perfect it. And finally as Valens’ career begins to spiral, there’s an Alan Freed concert in which Jackie Wilson (Howard Huntsberry) and Eddie Cochran (Brian Setzer) practically bring the place down, putting the pressure on Valens, who follows them. It’s the moment for “La Bamba,” of course, and the staging of that number makes up for a lot.

It also reminds us that Taylor Hackford, who with Bill Borden was the film’s producer, had enormous skill with his own ‘50s drama-with-music, “The Idolmaker.” These last sequences, along with the Buddy Holly numbers by Marshall Crenshaw approach some of “The Idolmaker’s” intensity.

Valdez--and production designer Vince Cresciman--have caught some details beautifully: the feeling of these migrant camps, tents hung with strings of garlic and peppers, fat babies in hammocks, food and music in equal quantities. The scenes between Morales and Pena in their trailer--when hot love cools into tiresome responsibility--are marvelous. And there are sly musical characterizations: Donna’s parents, in all their square, pleasant, affluence, in the sort of house that Ritchie yearns for, listening to “Blue Tango.”

These are the edges that should have been honed to make “La Bamba” into something lasting, not just something virtuous and pleasant.

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