La Bamba (1987): Can a Rock Biopic be Sweet?

Orrin Konheim
3 min readApr 9, 2021

Can a rock god be a sweet angelic boy — someone wants nothing more than to buy his mother a house and do right by his high school sweetheart and extended family?

My experience with rock and roll biopics (Ray, Walk the Line, Dreamgirls, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Doors, Almost Famous) has taught me otherwise. If the movies (and the occasional Rolling Stone article) has taught me anything, it’s that rock is a corrupting influence. It’s only a matter of time before your head gets big, you abandon your friends and business partners, you succumb to groupies (or in the case of Bohemian Rhapsody, a strangely evil form of gaydom) and drugs get the better of you.

In Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, Freddie Mercury was far more a uniting force than a dividing force and there’s little evidence of him taking his band mates for granted. Contrary to what the movie states, they all started solo careers around the same time.

I’m not enough of an expert to comment on whether reality serves the story in these cases or the other way around, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some exaggeration was necessary.

Then again, a well-behaved rock and roller is not only a boring story, it seems antithetical to the spirit of rock and roll or any of its variants. Whether the country stylings of Johnny Cash or the sounds of Motown, it seems like music in the last 70 years wouldn’t be what it is if its creators weren’t driven by a rebellious streak.

This isn’t so in the case of Richie Valens. Or at least the version played by Lou Diamond Phillips in the 1987 film La Bamba was pure and angelic. Born Ricky Venezuela to a single Chicano mother, Venezuela was true to his high school sweetheart, forgiving of his abusive brother, and he never had a desire to do anything but earn enough money to buy his mother a house. Valens’ life came to an end in a plane crash along with Buddy Holly and J.P. Richardson in an event that served as a humongous blow to the burgeoning rock and roll movement. It was most famously catalogued in Don McLean’s hit “American Pie” where the term “The Day the Music Died” was coined.

You might say that Richie Valens was a paragon of virtue is giving him an awful lot of the benefit of the doubt considering he died at the age of 17. It’s possible that in an alternative reality, Valens would have knocked up seven girls and killed a cat had he survived to 18. In fact, one of the smarter things the film does is hint…

Orrin Konheim

Freelance journalist w/professional bylines in 3 dozen publications, writing coach, google me. Patreon: http://www.patreon/com/okjournalist Twitter: okonh0wp