When “La Bamba” premiered in the summer of 1987, expectations for its success were low. The film was based on the life of Ritchie Valens, the Mexican-American teenager (birth name: Richard Steven Valenzuela) who was one of the first Latinos in rock ‘n’ roll. He covered his early days as a farm worker in Delano, Calif., His connection to his controversial older brother, Bob, and the complexity of having to hide his background to be successful in the music industry with hits like the title song. . Basically, it was the story of two brothers working towards the realization of the American dream, a dream generally reserved for white Americans.
Valens died in 1959, just a year after being signed to Del-Fi Records, in a plane crash that also killed two other stars, Buddy Holly and JP Richardson, better known as Big Bopper.
The fleeting career of a teenage Latino hasn’t really made Hollywood executives run. So-called “ethnic” stories were not considered box office draws. An early Los Angeles Times article paraphrased marketers who privately feared “La Bamba” – written and directed by Latino playwright Luis Valdez and starring unknown Filipino actor Lou Diamond Phillips – is falling “Fatally short”. expectations and “sour” Hollywood on other films about Latinos.
Still, the biopic, made for just $ 6.5 million, grossed over $ 54 million. Adjusted for inflation, it’s over $ 120 million.
“La Bamba became the flagship of what many thought was a Latin wave in Hollywood,” Phillips said via video chat. “But he never took root enough to become a pillar.”
Valdez added: “In that sense, then, ‘La Bamba’ is unique and fresh because not much has been there to compete with it.
With “La Bamba” playing on HBO Max and making a brief return to theaters, Valdez reunited with Phillips to discuss the film, and its impact, 34 years later.
These are edited excerpts from our conversation.
“La Bamba” is still considered one of the must-see latino stories in cinematic history. How do you feel that a movie you created over three decades ago is still so influential?
VALDEZ It does good and bad in a way. It’s good that the movie is relevant, up to date, and people can appreciate it because of what it is. At the same time, there should be dozens of films like “La Bamba” depicting the Latin experience. Not just the Latino experience, but the experience of the minority as a whole in America. Because I think what makes the film so strong is that it refers to a new consensus in America, what it means to be American. It most certainly has multicultural roots, but it subscribes to the same basic universal concerns in every person’s life: family, work, hope, ambition, dreams, desires, and this is relevant in that sense, because these things never go away. These are human and eternal.
PHILLIPS I agree with what Luis said. We wish we had been further along at this point. What we’ve seen, I think, over the last 20 years is a very loud African American community and very driven and determined producers, directors and writers. When you had Tyler Perry, Ava DuVernay, or Shonda Rhimes, you had these designers who became touchstones to open your own store. Luis was the pioneer in this field. He just didn’t have enough people to follow in his footsteps.
Señor Valdez, you mentioned that the film was an American story. It has inspired many first and second generation Latin American children to dream big. Why is there such a barrier to putting an American label on what is considered an “ethnic” story?
VALDEZ I think it’s a matter of American narrative. What story are we telling here and from whose perspective? We’ve all been sold on the idea of pilgrims and the coming of 1492 and Europe and so on, haven’t we? Well, that should include the history of Mexico, which is a whole different country when it comes to the American narrative. But in fact, everything needs to be reconsidered. It is necessary to rewrite the narrative, revisit the narrative and say, “OK, what is an American? What does it mean to be American? “
We all live ordinary lives. 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 need to be violent. We can be normal people who go to malls and buy food and clothes for our kids and just send them to school. We have the life that is portrayed in all the films about white people. They have the whole range. Minorities don’t; they find themselves locked in a stereotype. And the most violent, the most exotic and the strangest, supposedly the most commercial. Well, that’s a lie.
I’m curious to know what happened to your career as a filmmaker after “La Bamba”. You directed and wrote a few TV movies, then went back to the theater and stopped making films. What happened?
VALDEZ I became a filmmaker years after being a trade union organizer and founder of El Teatro Campesino and a university professor. I went to a number of other things. I returned to teaching as well. As one of the founding professors of [Cal State University] Monterey Bay, I started this thing called the Institute for Teledramatic Arts and Technology, which anticipated some of the changes that are happening now, with streaming and the like. But frankly, there was a lot of difficulty trying to get new projects that I wanted to do. They offered me things that I didn’t want to do so I decided not to do it because I had other options.
In the late 90s you said you were going to start working on a sequel to “La Bamba” that would follow Ritchie’s brother Bob. What happened to this project?
VALDEZ It seemed to me that there was an extension of the story. I had followed Bob for the movie, God bless him, he died a few years ago. He was 81 with a Mohawk and an earring. She was just a great person to really know and appreciate as a friend. There was a story there that had to do with expanding rock ‘n’ roll history, how we went from the 50s to the 60s. The vehicle to get there was really Bob’s crossing line. So I pitched this idea to a number of producers and failed to get a hook.
Frankly, I think we don’t have enough producers who understand the experience of minorities in America. They always go to the same things – violence, drugs and sensationalism, thinking that’s what’s going to sell. More often than not, it’s the silent human story that finally connects with people, which I think is the secret of “La Bamba”.
Has history changed you? Did it inspire you to do something that you might not have done before?
PHILLIPS It underscored and galvanized my own dream. I read for Bob for a few days, then one day Luis walked past me. I was sitting in the hallway. He says, “Tomorrow, you read for Ritchie.” I remember walking along Pico Boulevard thinking, “Dude, oh my God. I wrapped my head around Bob. Now, how do you play Ritchie? The revelation that came to me was that I’m already Ritchie. I am a child with a big dream, the desire to pursue it. The whole process of becoming Ritchie and catapulting myself like that changed my life.
I had a philosophy: it will change my life, but it will not change me. The experience made me introspective for the rest of my career and not feel like I was entitled to this, that I was lucky and never to be less than grateful.
VALDEZ Ritchie and I were from the same generation. I was in high school when rock ‘n’ roll hit in the 50s, and I can understand Ritchie’s ambitions because I had the same ambitions. We were all enthusiastic Americans back then, and I dreamed that every opportunity presented itself to me. If I wanted to do anything, if I want to be a rock star, I could, and Ritchie had this dream and he acted on it. And the same thing happened to me at the theater. I mean, there was no Latin theater when I started, and I realized no one else had, so I’m going to do it. I started writing plays in 1960. It was a whole different world back then. That’s why I identified with Ritchie: he died for it, but he lived his dreams.