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.
Set in the dusty, dirt-brown valleys around Los Angeles, "La Bamba" is the story of the emergence in the late '50s of a 17-year-old Mexican American boy -- Valens, whose real name was Ricardo Valenzuela, was a third-generation American who couldn't speak a word of Spanish -- from the migrant camps and fruit groves to the front lines of rock. Basically, it's a load of corn -- an up-from-the-basement account of a pop comet -- but the movie has an energetic, almost naive spirit. It plays like a film about a neighborhood hero made by an adoring youngster down the street, and the hero worship is so unrestrained that it has a kind of infectious freshness that overwhelms any objections.
Admittedly, Valens had the kind of career that rock legends are made of. From start to finish, it lasted all of about eight months, during which time he had three Top 10 hits, and culminated in 1959 with the plane crash that took his life as well as those of Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper.
It was the kind of success, the film tells us, that Valens always expected for himself. When we first see Ritchie, it's the summer of 1957, and he's picking apricots in the groves near where he and his mother (Rosana De Soto) and his two little sisters live. The camp is cramped and squalid, but though the characters complain about the conditions and their lack of a real home, Valdez presents their lives poetically. Cinematographer Adam Greenberg captures the look of laborers working in the idyllic, sun-drenched California weather, and the light ennobles them and softens their hardship. Though clearly they're living in poverty and slaving away in the heat for almost no money, as you look at the life as Valdez depicts it here, it almost doesn't seem so bad.
Little of this appears to have an effect on Ritchie. Almost never without his white hollow-body guitar slung over his shoulder -- sometimes he carries a dark green electric -- all he cares about, he says, is his music. And his family. And his dreams, he tells his brother Bob (Esai Morales), are pure rock 'n' roll.
Bob, just recently out of prison, swings by the camp on his motorcycle, and with the money he's earned dealing drugs, he scoops up his family, rents a house for his mother and her brood, and sets up himself and his girlfriend Rosie (Elizabeth Penåa) in a trailer next door. Bob's function in the story is twofold: to provide dramatic conflict where there otherwise would be none and to help Ritchie make contact with his Mexican heritage.
The scenes that deal with this aspect of the story are the most puzzling, but in some ways the most original. I don't think Valdez has worked out all the cosmic levels and mystical implications of his material in his own head, much less in the film. And I'm not sure it would do us much good if he did. According to Valdez, if Valens was prepared for the kind of success he achieved, his end didn't come as much of a surprise either.
From the opening shots on a schoolyard basketball court, Valdez lays on the grainy portents, showing slow-motion shots of ominous, gliding planes and midair explosions. Flying images -- a winged guitar that pops up on a poster and later as a tattoo on Ritchie's arm; Ritchie's Thunderbird -- ricochet throughout the film. As the story goes, his best friend was killed on a playground by a crashing plane, and had Ritchie not attended his grandfather's funeral, he would have been killed too. All his life, Ritchie says, he's known he will die on a plane.
"La Bamba" is a puzzle -- a real mixed bag. Some of it, like the braying, cock-and-bull performance by Esai Morales, is just plain awful. But other bits, like the performances by Rosana De Soto and, as Ritchie's agent, Joe Pantoliano, are unexpectedly vibrant.
The Valens music, too, performed in the film by the Los Angeles Mex-rock band Los Lobos, is a kick. Lead singer David Hidalgo, who performs the Valens vocals, actually has a more working-class quality to his voice than Valens' sweet tenor had. It feels as if he's lived a story similar to the one the movie tells -- it sounds rooted in that life -- and that may have something to do with why his versions of the songs, some of which are improvements on the originals, work so well in the film.
The tale has the classic lines of a rock 'n' roll rise to glory, and you may feel you've seen some of the early sequences -- the tryouts, divey clubs and scrub bands -- in dozens of other movies. And you probably have. The movie plays like a greatest hits of movie bio cliche's. But Valdez presents it all unapologetically, with brio, and the mood of the film is so vibrant and the energy so uninhibited that you're carried over the familiarity of the terrain. The outlines of the film are the same as those of '30s and '40s movies in which talented young kids from the Lower East Side (or wherever) rise to the top, but Valdez seems to have some primal, native resonance in his story; he's seen something immutable, classical and true in it. And darned if he doesn't believe in it so deeply that he almost convinces you it's true, too.
La Bamba, at area theaters, is rated PG-13 and contains some mild profanity.