Richard Steven Valenzuela (Phillips) is a normal teenage boy who becomes a rock 'n' roll superstar under the stage name Ritchie Valens. He meets and falls in love with fellow high school student Donna Ludwig (von Zerneck), for whom he wrote a song that became a number two hit ("Donna"). However, Donna's father is shown as having issues with his daughter dating a Mexican-American, which causes friction between Ritchie and Donna. The movie also has several subplots, such as his relationship with his mother Connie Valenzuela (DeSoto) and half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), and the jealousy Bob felt toward Ritchie's success.
In one scene, Bob wins an important art contest that helps promising cartoonists, only to throw away his prize because, in his mind, his mother does not seem to care enough. Bob resorts to drinking heavily and, at one point, leads him to yelling in a drunken rage in front of his mother's door, "I want to see my daughter!" in reference to the child he sired with Ritchie's first girlfriend Rosie (Peña).
However, when they get an opportunity, Ritchie and Bob sneak out for a good time. On one occasion, they take a road trip to Tijuana, visiting one of the local clubs where Ritchie discovers the song that would eventually become his signature song, "La Bamba".
The film also focuses on Ritchie's aviophobia (fear of flying), triggered by a recurring dream he has as a result of a midair collision between two planes that actually occurred directly over Ritchie's school, in which Ritchie's best friend was crushed to death by one of the fallen aircraft (Ritchie was absent from school that day to attend his grandfather's funeral). At first, Ritchie manages to avoid flying to his concerts and appearances; but he must eventually conquer his fear when invited to perform his song "Donna" on American Bandstand. Ritchie's record producer and manager, Bob Keane (Pantoliano), helps him by giving him a little vodka to calm his nerves during the flight to Philadelphia for the Bandstand appearance.
As Ritchie becomes more famous, his responsibilities change, and eventually he must join the ill-fated Winter Dance Party tour with Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw) and "The Big Bopper" (Stephen Lee) after "La Bamba" and "Donna" reach the top of the Billboard charts.
Valens, Holly, and Bopper take off in an airplane during a snowstorm for their fateful flight on February 3, 1959 (the night that came to be known as "The Day the Music Died"). Before the ill-fated flight, Ritchie makes a call to his brother, wherein they patch up their differences. He even invites Bob to fly out to Chicago to join the tour for family support.
The next day, as Bob is fixing his mother's car, he hears the news bulletin on the radio that his brother's plane crashed without any survivors. Bob darts out of his driveway in an attempt to get to his mother before she hears the bad news through the radio. Unfortunately, by the time he gets there, she stands immobile. The news of Ritchie's death hits the Valenzuela family, Bob Keane, and Donna very hard. In the final scene, the cars to Ritchie's funeral are shown driving slowly into San Fernando Mission Cemetery and Bob is then seen walking across a bridge and screaming out Ritchie's name, remembering all the good times they had together (in flashback), accompanied by the Santo & Johnny instrumental "Sleep Walk."
Lou Diamond Phillips (as Valens) is then shown in an earlier scene performing Valens' version of "La Bamba" accompanied by the closing credits. In the movie David Hidalgo of Los Lobos provided the singing voice.Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens
Esai Morales as Roberto "Bob" Morales (Ritchie's half-brother)
Rosanna DeSoto as Connie Valenzuela (Ritchie's mother)
Danielle von Zerneck as Donna Ludwig
Elizabeth Peña as Rosie Morales
Joe Pantoliano as Bob Keane
Rick Dees as Ted Quillin
Marshall Crenshaw as Buddy Holly
Howard Huntsberry as Jackie Wilson
Brian Setzer as Eddie Cochran
Stephen Lee as The Big Bopper
Sam Anderson as Mr. Ludwig (Donna's father)
Also featured are several members of the Valenzuela family and director Luis Valdez's family, including:Concepcion Valenzuela (the real Connie Valenzuela, Ritchie's mother) as the elderly woman sitting next to Lou Diamond Phillips (as Ritchie) at a party
Daniel Valdez (Luis' brother) as Ritchie's Uncle Lelo
The film opened in wide release in the United States on July 24, 1987. In Australia it opened on September 17, 1987.
In its opening weekend, the film grossed a total of $5,698,884. La Bamba eventually grossed $52,678,820 in the United States in 12 weeks.
Roger Ebert liked the film and the screenplay, writing, "This is a good small movie, sweet and sentimental, about a kid who never really got a chance to show his stuff. The best things in it are the most unexpected things: the portraits of everyday life, of a loving mother, of a brother who loves and resents him, of a kid growing up and tasting fame and leaving everyone standing around at his funeral shocked that his life ended just as it seemed to be beginning."
Janet Maslin, writing for The New York Times, was impressed with Lou Diamond Phillips' performance, and wrote, "A film like this is quite naturally a showcase for its star, and as Valens, Lou Diamond Phillips has a sweetness and sincerity that in no way diminish the toughness of his onstage persona. The role is blandly written, but Mr. Phillips gives Valens backbone."
The review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes reported that 96% of critics gave the film a positive review, based on 26 reviews."
WinsBroadcast Music Incorporated: BMI Film Music Award, Carlos Santana and Miles Goodman; 1988.
NominationsGolden Globe Award: Best Motion Picture - Drama; 1988.
Because the movie is a celebration of 1950s rock and roller Ritchie Valens, his music and the music of his contemporaries play a central part in the film.
An original motion picture soundtrack album was released on June 30, 1987 on Warner Bros. Records. The album contained 12 tracks. The first six songs consist of Los Lobos covers of Ritchie Valens' songs: "La Bamba", "Come On Let's Go", "Ooh My Head", "We Belong Together", "Framed", and "Donna".
Other performers include: Howard Huntsberry, Marshall Crenshaw, Brian Setzer, and Bo Diddley performing a new version of his blues classic "Who Do You Love?".
Some songs like The Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" were omitted from the release. Other omitted songs were "Oh Boy", "Rip It Up", "The Paddi Wack Song" (written by Valens), and "Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny (used in the final and initial scenes).Side A.
- "La Bamba" - Los Lobos
- "Come On, Let's Go!" - Los Lobos
- "Ooh My Head" - Los Lobos
- "We Belong Together" - Los Lobos
- "Framed" - Los Lobos
- "Donna" - Los Lobos
- "Lonely Teardrops" - Howard Huntsberry
- "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" - Marshall Crenshaw
- "Summertime Blues" - Brian Setzer
- "Who Do You Love?" - Bo Diddley
- "Charlena" - Los Lobos
- "Goodnight, My Love" - Los Lobos