‘La Bamba’ and the Lives It Modified

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‘La Bamba’ and the Lives It Changed

At the premiere of “La Bamba” in the summer of 1987, expectations of success were low. The film is based on the life of Ritchie Valens, the Mexican-American teenager (birth name: Richard Steven Valenzuela) who was one of the first Latinos to play rock and roll. It covered his beginnings as a farm laborer in Delano, California, his bondage with controversial big brother Bob, and the complexity of having to hide his background in order to make it to hits like the title track in the music business. At its core, it was the story of two brothers who worked to make the American dream come true, a dream normally reserved for white Americans.

Valens died in 1959, just a year after signing with Del-Fi Records, in a plane crash that also killed two other stars, Buddy Holly and JP Richardson, better known as Big Bopper.

A Latino teenager’s short-lived career didn’t exactly get Hollywood executives going. What was labeled “ethnic” stories was not considered a box office draw. An early article in the Los Angeles Times paraphrased marketing specialists who privately feared that “La Bamba” – written and directed by a Latin American playwright, Luis Valdez, with an unknown Filipino actor, Lou Diamond Phillips – would be “deadly short.” would. of expectations and would get Hollywood “pissed” at other films about Latinos.

The biopic, which cost only $ 6.5 million, grossed more than $ 54 million. Adjusted for inflation, that’s more than $ 120 million.

“La Bamba became the flagship of what many thought was a Latino wave in Hollywood,” Phillips said via video chat. “But it never found enough hold where it became a mainstay.”

Valdez added: “In that sense, ‘La Bamba’ is unique and fresh because there wasn’t very much to compete with.”

When “La Bamba” played Max on HBO and briefly returned to theaters, Valdez met with Phillips again 34 years later to discuss the film and its implications.

These are edited excerpts from our conversation.

“La Bamba” is still considered one of the Latino stories that have to be seen in film history. How does it feel that a movie you made over three decades ago is still so influential?

VALDEZ It feels both good and bad in some ways. It’s good that the movie is relevant, that it is timely, and that people can enjoy it for what it is. At the same time, there should be dozens of films like “La Bamba” that portray the Latino experience. Not just the Latino experience, but the minority experience as a whole in America. Because I think what makes the film strong is that it points to a new consensus in America about what it means to be American. It definitely has multicultural roots, but it has the same basic universal concerns in everyone’s life: family, work, hope, ambition, dreams, desires, and it’s relevant in that sense because these things never go away. They are people and forever.

PHILLIPS I agree with what Luis said. We would have liked to have made further progress at this point. I think we’ve seen a very vocal African American community and very motivated and determined producers, directors and writers over the past 20 years. If you’ve had Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay, or Shonda Rhimes, you’ve had these creators who became touchstones for starting your own business. Luis was the pioneer in this. He just didn’t have enough people to follow in his footsteps.

Señor Valdez, you mentioned that the film is an American story. It inspired many first and second generation American Latino children to dream big. Why is there such an obstacle to putting an American label on an “ethnic” story?

VALDEZ I think it’s a matter of American narrative. What story are we telling here and from whose point of view? We were all sold by the idea that the pilgrims and 1492 and Europe and so on would come, right? Well, that should include the story of Mexico, which is a different country for American narrative as a whole. But actually the whole thing has to be checked again. It is necessary to rewrite the narrative, look at it again and say, “OK, what is an American? What does it mean to be american? “

We all live an ordinary life. We don’t have to be gang members. We don’t have to be criminals. We don’t have to be drug addicts. We don’t have to be violent. We can be normal people who go to the malls and buy food and clothes for our children and just send them to school. We have the life that is represented in all films that deal with whites. You get the whole range. Minorities do not; You get caught up in a stereotype. And the more violent and exotic and strange it is, the more commercial it should be. Well that’s a lie.

I’m curious what happened to your film career after “La Bamba”. You directed and wrote a few television films, but then went back to the theater and stopped making films. What happened?

VALDEZ I became a filmmaker years after I was a union organizer and founder of El Teatro Campesino and college professor. I went to a number of other things. I also taught again. As one of the founding professors [Cal State University] Monterey Bay, I started this thing called the Institute of Teledramatic Arts and Technology that anticipated some of the changes that are currently going on with streaming and the like. But to be honest, it was very difficult to find new projects that I wanted to do. They offered me things that I didn’t want to do, so I decided against it because I had other options.

In the late 90s you said you were working on a sequel to La Bamba to follow Ritchie’s brother Bob. What happened to this project?

VALDEZ It seemed to me that there was an extension of the story. I followed Bob for the movie, God bless him, he died a few years ago. He was 81 years old, had a mohawk and an earring. He was just a sensational person to know and really enjoy as a friend. There was a story there that had to do with expanding rock and roll history as we went from the 50s to the 60s. The vehicle to get there was really Bob’s through line. So I took this idea to a number of producers and couldn’t get a hook.

I honestly think we don’t have enough producers who understand the minority experience in America. They always go to the same things – the violence, the drugs, and the sensationism, and think that this is going to sell. Most of the time, it’s the quiet human story that finally connects with people, which in my opinion is the secret of “La Bamba”.

Has history changed you Did it inspire you to do something you may not have done before?

PHILLIPS It underlined and galvanized my own dream. I read for Bob for a couple of days and then one day Luis passed me by. I sat in the hall. He says, “Tomorrow you will read for Ritchie.” I remember walking down Pico Boulevard and thinking, “Man, oh god. I wrapped my head around Bob. How do I play Ritchie? “The revelation that came to me was, I’m already Ritchie. I’m a kid with a big dream, a desire to strive for it. The whole process of becoming Ritchie and being catapulted into it changed my life .

I had a philosophy: it will change my life, but it won’t change me. The experience made me thoughtful for the rest of my career and felt no right to be happy and never to be less than grateful.

VALDEZ Ritchie and I were of the same generation. I was in high school when rock ‘n’ roll hit back in the 50s, and I can understand Ritchie’s ambitions because I had the same ambitions. We were all Gung Ho Americans at the time, and I dreamed that all options were available to me. If I wanted to do anything, if I wanted to be a rock star, I could, and Ritchie had that dream and he acted on it. And the same thing happened to me in the theater. I mean when I started there was no latino theater and I realized that nobody else did, so I’m going to do it. I started writing plays in 1960. Back then it was a completely different world. That’s why I identified with Ritchie: he died for it, but he lived his dreams.