Most of the news interest in Columbia Pictures’ current hit movie “La Bamba” has focused on the studio’s successful penetration of the Latino film-going audience through the release in certain theaters of a dubbed Spanish-language version.
It was a wise marketing decision and one that is certain to launch a trend in the American film industry. But the dubbing process, the use of voice actors to re-record dialogue in Spanish, is hardly the technical story of “La Bamba.” What makes this movie sing--literally--is the seemingly error-free lip-syncing of its star, Lou Diamond Phillips.
Throughout this biographical film about the short-lived career of ‘50s rock singer Ritchie Valens, Phillips appears on screen, in close-up shots, singing Valens’ songs. The voice is actually that of David Hidalgo of Los Lobos, the contemporary group that re-recorded most of Valens’ hits. But only Hidalgo and the film-making crew would know the words aren’t coming out of Phillips’ mouth.
Phillips, a young actor with no musical background, obviously deserves credit for getting his lips and his guitar strumming lined up with the music. But as is the case whenever an actor successfully completes the illusion of lip syncing, he got a lot of help from someone.
“An actor can only go so far (with lip-syncing), he can get you in the ballpark,” said Curt Sobel, music editor on “La Bamba.” “Lou did a great job. He practiced constantly. But when everything was shot, there was still a lot of work to do.”
Sobel, a 33-year-old free-lance editor whose credits include “White Knights” and “Eddie and the Cruisers,” said that both he and a guitar instructor were on the set during every musical scene with Phillips, coaching him from the sidelines and advising director Luis Valdez as to which takes were most in sync with the music.
On the set, Sobel said, Phillips sang and strummed to the prerecorded Los Lobos music, usually a verse at a time. By shooting scenes from different angles, Phillips did not have to be perfectly in sync for long stretches of a song and the music and film editors could patch numbers together from a series of short bursts.
Nonetheless, the actual synchronization of Phillips’ performance with the music was done frame by frame in the editing room, Sobel said.
“The lips and the voice are never perfectly synchronized,” Sobel said. “You have to find the exact spot where the actor begins a word and put the beginning of the music right there.”
The editing process is technologically complicated, but as Sobel explained it, the editor has the ability to stretch or shorten the music to fit the actor’s lip movements (or his guitar strumming). When the Valens songs were being rerecorded, Hidalgo’s voice and each instrument in Los Lobos’ band were captured on separate tracks, allowing Sobel to painstakingly sculpt the entire song to synchronize with the performance.
When Valens was recording in 1958, the singers’ voices were not routinely isolated as they are now, which Sobel said is the reason the original recordings were not used in the movie. Without a voice track, Sobel wouldn’t have been able to shape the real Valens voice to Phillips’ lips.
“We got the cleanest versions (of Valens’ songs) we could, but it was clear they weren’t going to work for stereo theaters,” Sobel said. “I told Luis Valdez and (producer) Taylor Hackford that ‘if you use Ritchie’s music, whatever Lou does, that’s it. I can’t fix it.’ ”
There is one scene in “La Bamba” that could not have been done using original Valens music at all. It is a re-creation of Valens’ first recording session, where his producer constantly interrupts him with instructions on how he wants the song “Come On, Let’s Go” sung.
Sobel said Los Lobos recorded 30 versions to the first verse and middle section of that number, each slightly different in musical phrasing or actual wording. Some versions were made up in Sobel’s studio of bits and pieces from the others.
“We didn’t know how the scenes would be edited later, so Lou had to learn all 30 versions and practice them,” Sobel said. “After he learned them, we cut the number of versions to 18. (Seven were finally used in the movie.) We made up cue cards for each one and as he sang them through each take, I sat below the microphone holding up cue cards.”
The scene took one nightmarishly long day, Sobel said, and ended late in the evening with Phillips completing his one successful take of the final full-length song version that appears in the film. When you see it, pay attention to Phillips’ beaming smile at the end of the session. It was genuine.
“He had been doing it over and over and there was always something that wasn’t quite right,” Sobel said. “When he did that last one, he knew he had hit it. We all did.”
Phillips’ singing voice and guitar work were to have been used in one scene, where Valens calls his girlfriend from a phone booth and sings the song--"Donna"--that he has just written for her. Phillips was recorded singing and strumming through the scene, but it was decided later that it didn’t work.
Sobel said Phillips’ music just didn’t match the rest of the music in the film, so they went back to Los Lobos and had Hidalgo record those verses of “Donna” while watching Phillips sing on screen. Sobel then had to synchronize Hidalgo’s voice to Phillips’ lips.
It’s rare that a music editor plays as integral a part in the production of a movie as Sobel did. For “normal” films, he said the job of the music editor is to assist the composer and director in aligning the music with the visuals. But the success of a film like “La Bamba” hinges on an audience’s ability to totally buy the illusion.
“The audience has to believe that the actor is singing,” Sobel said. “When he opens his mouth, sounds had better come out.”