Available on Dual-Format Blu-Ray & DVD
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that performers like Bowie, Prince and Carrie Fisher were, in that well-worn phrase, ‘taken before their time’. But for Ritchie Valens it really is true: he was only 17. The plane in which he was travelling in 1957 crashed, also killing his fellow performers the Big Bopper and Buddy Holly – three stars of the early days of rock’n’roll. This was the event that inspired singer songwriter Don Maclean’s expression ‘the day the music died’ from his hit ‘American Pie’.
Valens (born Valenzuela) and his family are poor Mexican-American fruit pickers when the film opens. Then they up-sticks for LA to start anew. Ritchie (a winning performance from Lou Diamond Phillips) and his brother (an intense Esai Morales) don’t see eye to eye – one has talent as a musician and the devotion of his mother (Rosanna DeSoto) and the other is a motorcycle-riding no-goodnik. A lot of the old pop star scenarios are here: the pushy mother, manipulative producer, temptress fans, dashed true love… But this is not just a movie of quiffs and convertible coupes. It has real heart.
As his record producer (Joe Pantoliano) attempts to ditch the other band-mates he asks Valens: ‘what’s more important, your friends or your music?’ The singer answers: ‘my family’. Ritchie – a performer and a composer – was one of the good guys whose shocking, sudden demise was all the more tragic.
This is a well-remembered and likeable film although the constant premonitions of the star’s early demise are overdone. And the story might be too saccharine for some viewers. There are some pleasing performances and director Valdez is always on sure ground. Valens’s hits like ‘Donna’ and ‘La Bamba’ and the atmosphere of Chicano LA are captured with brio. Los Lobos acts as Valens’ band. It’s debatable, however, whether the film, 30th anniversary of its release though it be, quite belongs under the Masters of Cinema banner on this Blu-ray release.