A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that La Bamba is a 1987 biopic on legendary 1950s rock and roller Ritchie Valens. In addition to telling the story of Valens' rise and untimely death, the movie also shows Ritchie's brother Bob's struggles with alcohol. When drunk, Bob is violent to his girlfriend and family, verbally and physically abusive. When the movie begins, Bob has just gotten out of prison, and is later shown selling marijuana to a friend; the marijuana was taped to his chest, presumably smuggled. While confiding in his brother about his girlfriend, Bob tells Ritchie, "I almost have to rape her just to have sex." In the aftermath of Ritchie's heartbreak due to being unable to see his girlfriend Donna because her father is prejudiced against Mexican Americans, Bob tells Ritchie, "We gotta get you some tail," and the two go to Tijuana, where Bob takes Ritchie to a whorehouse. Ritchie wakes up the next day extremely hung over with a new tattoo in the hut of an elderly man. There's some cigarette smoking, as well as some profanity, including "f--k." Brief nudity is seen (female breasts) when young boys are caught spying on women taking a shower in a work camp on a farm. In addition, Ritchie's untimely death and his family's grief might be a bit much to take for more sensitive viewers, especially families who have recently lost loved ones.
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What's the story?
LA BAMBA chronicles the life story of 1950s Mexican American pop singer Ritchie Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips), who broke barriers with mainstream hits including "Come on, Let's Go" and "La Bamba." Ritchie is a dutiful son compared to older brother and bad boy Bob (Esai Morales), and the difference causes friction between the two brothers. In high school, Ritchie plays in a band, and falls in love with Donna, but her parents disapprove of her relationship with a Latino from the other side of the tracks. Ritchie continues to hone his skills while struggling with his tempestuous relationship with Bob, and he constantly suffers from a fear of flying. When a record producer (Joe Pantoliano) discovers Ritchie playing at a teen dance, that fateful meeting leads to Valens' biggest hit singles. On a tour in the Midwest, the rising star boards a plane with Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. It's February 3, 1959 -- the day the music died.
Is it any good?
LA BAMBA feels like rock 'n' roll in the fabulous '50s: fresh, young, exciting, sentimental, a little bit dangerous, but irresistibly infectious. Lou Diamond Phillips, with his wide-eyed energy and boyish charm, is endearing as the Mexican American performer whose time in the spotlight was tragically brief. The movie also depicts an intense but loving relationship between two brothers.
The concert sequences are fun and energetic, and Phillips commands the stage in these scenes. Valens' music and vocals are provided by Los Lobos, who also make an appearance as a Tijuana dance-hall band. Rock musicians Marshall Crenshaw and Brian Setzer have cameos as Holly and Eddie Cochran.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the dynamics of Ritchie's family. What are the positive and negative aspects of their interactions and what is the distinction between the two brothers? How accurate is the movie's portrayal of Ritchie?
How does the movie portray Mexican Americans in 1950s California?
Why does Ritchie change his name to something less "ethnic"? Can you think of examples of other entertainers from that time who also changed their name for similar reasons?
- In theaters: July 24, 1987
- On DVD or streaming: April 6, 1999
- Cast: Esai Morales, Joe Pantoliano, Lou Diamond Phillips
- Director: Luis Valdez
- Studio: Sony Pictures
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: Brothers and Sisters, Great Boy Role Models, History, Music and Sing-Along
- Run time: 109 minutes
- MPAA rating: PG-13
- Last updated: July 24, 2020
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