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.
Not only does Valens not descend into vanity, drugs and self-destruction -- script requirements for most rock star bios -- but this one also plays "Paddiwack Song" on the guitar for kids, writes a hit song for his high school sweetie Donna and buys Mom a house when he's famous. The obstacles in his life are external -- poverty, envious musicians, Donna's racist father and, most important, the jealousy of his half-brother Bob, who becomes a kind of bad-luck monkey on his back. But Ritchie perseveres with good-natured spunk.
Valdez (who made the 1981 "Zoot Suit") and his brother, associate producer Danny Valdez, cooperated closely with Valens' family for this film. Predictably, there isn't a Ritchie blemish in sight. But the circumstances of Valens' life seem to beg this golden portrait. There is little literature about Valens (real name: Ricardo Valenzuela), a poor Los Angeles Hispanic who lit up the charts at the close of the '50s with three songs in five months (including "Donna") and put Latin bounce into rock 'n' roll. He was killed at 17 in the infamous "The Day The Music Died" plane crash that also claimed the lives of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.
We meet Ritchie working with his mother and two little sisters in a Northern California migrant farm. When Bob (returning from a jail stretch) gives them a handful of cash, the family moves out to a rundown luncheonette home in San Fernando. Ritchie goes to school, joins a local band and, aided by his mother's promotion (rock stars should have such a Mom), soon gets noticed by Bob Keene of Del-Fi Records. He begins to move up the ladder.
But Donna, the all-American girl he's fallen for, is forbidden by her father to see him. And Bob is a belligerent drunk who loves Ritchie but resents his brother's success and favored family status. Bob shows no paternal response when his girlfriend Rosie gets pregnant and ruins Ritchie's debut concert by starting a fight in the audience. But rather than playing Bob as a one-dimensional boar, Esai Morales permeates the irresponsible punk personality with sensitivity and a sense of humor. He's always at his brother's elbow -- whether it's his amusing substitution for Ritchie's drummer at a cowboy bar, or watching bleary-eyed as his brother does 60 takes of "Come On Let's Go" for producer Keene, or cutting up at sentimental Ritchie crooning "Donna" to his girlfriend in a phone booth.
Valdez's script gets a little foreshadow-happy. Ritchie has a recurring nightmare involving a plane crash. Bob schleps Ritchie to Tijuana to meet a spiritual snake man who gives him a talisman; in a later scuffle between brothers, that necklace is torn from Ritchie's neck.
The music is superb. West Coast band Los Lobos ghost Phillips' voice and music with stirring, updated flair. And musicians Brian Setzer, Howard Huntsberry and Marshall Crenshaw more than fill the shoes of their respective mentors Eddie Cochran, Jackie Wilson and Buddy Holly. And at an Alan Freed anniversary show (after Huntsberry's sensational Wilson has wowed the audience) when Ritchie gets the crowd to its feet with the title song, "La Bamba" reaches its warm and sentimental peak.
LA BAMBA (R) -- At the West End.