Clipped from US, California, Santa Ana, Santa Ana Orange County Register, July 24, 1987

a film that rocks with lifeBy Jim WashburnThe RegisterEver since A1 Jolson first warbled in “The Jazz Singer in 1927, the film community has deemed it a good (i.e., profitable) thing to create drama out of the lives of music stars. And in most instances the on-screen versions of those lives have been as thin and false as the blackface makeup smeared on Jolson*s face.Along with being fictionalized, overdramatized and larded with schmaltz(try “The Eddie Duchin Story on a full stomach sometime), most of the music-bio films have committed the greater sin of diminishing the artist’s work, making it poorly lip-synced filler to the tacky tales.The musically exciting, if not particularly accurate, 1978 “The Buddy Holly Story finally put the focus back on the music, and it gave a depth to its still-fic-tionalized account that set an example for such subsequent successes as “Coal Miner’s Daughter and “Sid and Nancy.Now the very same plane wreck that immortalized Holly brings us “La Bamba, the story of the 17-year-old rock singer Ritchie Valens, whose career was cut short on that same winter day. But, while endingwith that same fateful coda, there’s a world of difference between the two films. As effective as The Buddy Holly Story was — with Gary Busey’s live-wire performance catching the essential excitement of early rock — it holds no comparison to thevibrant, richly textured, brimming-with-life film that director-playwright Luis Valdez (Zoot Suit, I Don’t Have to Show You No Stinking Badges) has crafted from Valens’ life story.Valdez’s script rarely departs from the known facts of Valens’ life, and the lesser-known ones evidently were depicted accurately enough to earn the script approval of Valens’ family. And it is in Valens’ family that Valdez finds the heart of his story.It opens on the 16-year-old Richard Valenzuela (the name was later changed by his producer), his mother and family living in a migrant camp near San Jose, working the apricot orchards. Valdez’s initial theatrical accomplishment, El Teatro Campesino, grew out of the farm workers’ grape strike in 1965, and a firsthand knowledge went into his depiction of the poor-but-rich sense of community in the migrant camp. That evocative eye moves through the whole film, catching the life and spirit in each moment.When his older half-brother Bob turns up, returning with a wad of cash from jail and points beyond, the family moves to a low-rent area in Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley. Though there is a love that binds the two brothers, there is also an understated rivalry. The older Bob (played with just the right pitch of desperation by Esai Morales, Sean Penn’s adversary inBad Boys) is a leather-jacketed, Harley-riding, outside-the-law embodiment of machismo, which barely covers the fear that he’s powerless in a society geared against Chicano success.REVIEWThg film: ‘ La Bamba.’’Stars: Lou Diamond Philiips, Esai Morales, Rosana De Soto, Elizabeth Pena, Joe Pantoliano.Bahind ths scanas: Directed and written by Luis Valdez.Playing: Opens today at theaters throughout Orange County.Running tima: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Ratad: PG, for language and adult situations.In contrast, Valens (played by film newcomer Lou Diamond Phillips with a passion that makes one ignore the great physical differences between the stocky Valens and the slight actor) is the quintessential good kid, the apple of Mom’s eye, but also evidently driven to dreams of pure rock and roll’’ by a fear of being out-manned by his brother, who barely has returned before he takes the girl Valens had a crush on.In Valens’ character we see that magic where dream becomes reality, where a poor kid who jumps around singing along to Little Richard songs while doing the ironing winds up becoming a star. His path upward — playing garage parties and rented Legion halls, while his mom hypes the shows from an ice cream truck making its rounds —• might seem as hokey as the old hey, kids, let’s put on a show musicals. But back before America became legislated to death, things could actually happen that way — and did in Valens’case.The film beautifully evokes that time, with its innocence, T-Birds and tweed Fender amps (a minor point for most viewers perhaps, but the Holly film, which took pains to have correct period cars as far as one could see, had Holly playing guitars that weren’t made until seven years after he died).But more than being true to the time and place, Valdez’s script and direction ring true to the heart. The love and friction between brothers, Valens* romance with the Donna of his hit song, his rise to fame and tragic death — all have the makings of high melodrama, but Valdez plays it for real, with insight, feeling and humor.He is aided by an excellent cast. Along with Diamond and Morales, one couldn’t imagine better characterizations from any of the players, who include Rosana De Soto as Valens’ mother, Elizabeth Pena (Ruben Blades* co-star in Crossover Dreams) as Bob’s wife, and Joe Pantoliano as Valens’ discoverer and producer Bob Keene.The film’s musical choices are no less perfect. Present-day rockers Marshall Crenshaw and Brian Setzer obviously relish playing Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran, respectively, as does Jackie Wilson imitator Howard Huntsbury. And it’s difficult to picture even Valens’ own recordings working as well as Los Lobos’ (who also appear briefly as mariachis) exciting renditions for Diamond to lip-sync to.