Lou Diamond Phillips as Richie Valens in ‘La Bamba,’ which gets a revival at the Watsonville Film Festival this weekend.
When the rock & roll biopic La Bamba was released back in 1987, it introduced a whole new generation of fans to the story and music of 1950s teenage rocker Ritchie Valens and several of his musical peers.
In celebration of the 25th anniversary of the movie, the Watsonville Film Festival is presenting a special tribute screening of La Bamba on Saturday evening (March 2) with filmmaker Luis Valdez and members of Valens’ family in attendance.
It may be hard to believe that it has been a quarter century since La Bamba came out, particularly for those of us who saw it as youngsters in theaters when it was first released, and were so thoroughly affected by it, as I was.
At a time when MTV dominated the popular music paradigm—and much of what was played back then has rightfully faded into obscurity—it was truly an eye-opening experience to be taken to see La Bamba as an eight-year-old. I’m not sure exactly what it was that sparked such an interest in the film in me; I suppose it was just the right combination of great writing, acting and directing, which were all supported by a foundation of plain ol’ great rock ‘n’ roll.
After seeing La Bamba with a group of family and friends, I quickly got a copy of the movie’s soundtrack on cassette and proceeded to listen to it until it was practically worn out. I discovered a generation of artists who had been performing and recording nearly 30 years earlier, but spoke to me more than the ones I was hearing on the radio.
The songs featured in the film were not the original recordings by the musicians portrayed in La Bamba—Ritchie Valens, Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, Eddie Cochran—but they were excellent re-imaginings of early rock classics performed by a new generation of artists, who had themselves been influenced and inspired by these early pioneers.
After being electrified by the performances of Los Lobos, Brian Setzer and Marshall Crenshaw in the film and on the soundtrack, I was introduced to their contemporary work, and then ultimately went back and discovered the original recordings of the young rockers whose story captivated me while watching it on the big screen—and whose music had clearly lived on beyond their untimely deaths in a plane crash back in 1959.
Looking back on it now as an adult—one that covers music as a professional writer—seeing La Bamba all those years ago was what helped set me on my career path. It made me the music fan I am today. I’m looking forward to watching it on the big screen again, and hearing what director Luis Valdez and the Valenzuela family (“Valens” was an adopted stage name) have to say about the film. I also suspect that when the audience gets a chance to ask questions and talk about their fondness for La Bamba, I’ll discover that many others have been just as affected by this vastly underrated film over the last 25 years.
The festival will also feature a selection of youth and emerging talent short films, a family-friendly program, public health, environmental activism, human rights and LGBT documentaries, selections by local film makers and much more over the course of the weekend.
The Watsonville Film Festival is March 2-3 (‘La Bamba’ screens at 6pm Sat.)