The brief but incandescent life of rock-and-roll trailblazer Ritchie Valens is immortalized in this enthralling biopic from another Mexican American icon, Luis Valdez, the father of Chicano cinema. With sweetness and swagger, Lou Diamond Phillips embodies the 1950s California teenager who, forged by his fiercely supportive mother (Rosanna DeSoto) and rebellious brother (Esai Morales), rises from his farm-working roots to chart-topping fame in the early days of rock—until one fateful night that haunts music history. Propelled by a hip-shaking soundtrack featuring Los Lobos and Carlos Santana, La Bamba captures the electric vitality of an artist who bridged cultures to create his own American dream.
Luis Valdez’s La Bamba receives a new special edition through The Criterion Collection, presenting the film in the aspect ratio of 1.85:1 on a dual-layer disc with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode. The presentation is from a 4K restoration performed by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, taken primarily from a scan of the 35mm original camera negative.
It’s a primarily sharp and clean-looking presentation, though with a few minor hitches. The film opens with a flashback/dream sequence filmed in 16mm (with a couple of similar sequences popping up later), which doesn’t render as cleanly as the rest of the film, with the grain looking a little rough. Oddly, I didn’t think the screen captures I took around these sequences looked all that bad, probably a bit better than how things are rendered in the captures from the central portions of the film, yet I still found the picture to have a slightly noisier look in motion. Outside of a handful of somewhat buzzy sections, the rest of the film looks much cleaner with more of a film-like quality. Fine details look reasonably sharp, and I thought the smokey interiors were rendered cleanly enough, if not perfectly.
Black levels are relatively rich, and shadow detail is good. The dynamic range is wide, which helps render those smokey interiors along with the shifts in the lighting. Colors also have a nice pop to them, reds and greens especially.
All in I thought this looked rather good. I’m not sure why Criterion opted not to release the film in 4K (I thought it would have been popular enough), but it is a bit of a shame. It looks solid enough here, and I feel it would translate wonderfully to the format.
The film comes with a 5.1 surround sound presentation, delivered in DTS-HD MA. It’s a rather sharp and dynamic-sounding presentation, with terrific range present during the musical performances. Dialogue sounds clean, and there doesn’t appear to be any heavy damage, nor did I feel there was any excessive filtering. I didn’t notice a lot of splits in the rears, but it’s still an effective presentation.
The disc’s features prove to be a bit on the disappointing side, though they have their moments. Criterion first ports over the two audio commentaries recorded for the 1998 DVD edition, the first featuring director Valdez, executive producer Stuart Benjamin, and actors Lou Diamond Phillips and Esai Morales, the other featuring producers Taylor Hackford and Daniel Valdez, brother of Luis. The second track is probably the better of the two, if only because the two get into more detail about how the project came together and share stories of meeting Connie Valenzuela and Bob Morales and getting their participation. Hackford attributes the film’s success to being allowed free reign on what was covered in the movie, mentioning Selena and how he feels that the film wasn’t as good as it could have been because the family had too much control over the story. They also recall the casting process (including discovering Phillips) and dig into the research conducted for the film. Still, the track proves a little frustrating, if only because Hackford takes control of it, keeping Valdez to the wayside, even when the discussion goes into the direction of the film’s portrayal of the Chicano experience. There are moments when Valdez will share something interesting or funny, but Hackford feels to be waiting for his turn to talk, and he can come off as disinterested.
The director/producer/actors track takes a bit to get going, feeling initially like it is simply going to be the four recalling the filming of scenes as they come, though eventually, it picks up as the four expand on things and get more into the research around the film (including the actors’ research on their respective characters), finding locations, and recreating the period, with Valdez lamenting at one point he couldn’t paint over the yellow lines on the road as they would have been white at the time. There is also talk about narrative liberties taken in the film with a discussion about its title song and history.
Valdez doesn’t pop up as much as I would have expected him to, and how he came to be involved or why he ended up doing the film is barely mentioned. Thankfully, Criterion includes more material featuring the director, including a 2015 episode of El Rey Network’s The Director’s Chair hosted by Robert Rodriguez alongside a newly filmed interview created exclusively for this release. The Rodriguez interview, running 43 minutes, is more of a career overview, though it focuses more on his first play, Zoot Suit, and its eventual film adaptation that he almost didn’t direct. The last third then features them talking about La Bamba and Cisco Kid, with the two also delivering an appreciation for actor Elizabeth Peña, who passed away the year before.
The new interview, running 27 minutes, fills in some of the gaps left between the commentary and the 2015 interview, allowing Valdez to talk extensively about the community theater he set up and the subjects they tackled before getting into other work he did in Hollywood (including Zoot Suit) and La Bamba. Interestingly, he initially had no urge to do the film. However, he was all in once he realized it contained themes that interested him, including how the film’s story perfectly represented Chicano culture.
Some details and stories cross between the two interviews and commentaries (like the controversies around casting Phillips, who came on board just before filming started). Still, there is enough unique and exclusive information within each.
Sadly, that’s it for new interviews. Criterion, oddly, is not filming anything new with either Phillips or Morales, with the remaining material being archival (which includes the film’s original trailer). There are two presentations for audition tapes (which come up a few times in the commentaries), one set featuring Phillips and Morales, the other Peña and Rosana DeSoto, each running 13 and 6 minutes, respectively. There is also a 20-minute promotional featurette from 1987 entitled Remembering Ritchie. Though it features what you would typically expect, like interviews with the cast and crew and behind-the-scenes footage, this one goes further and gets interviews with Bob Morales and Donna herself, Donna Ludwig Coots. It also features video recordings of Morales and Connie Valenzuela. I usually don’t care for these things, but this one proves invaluable, thanks to the interviews that have been included—a surprisingly worthwhile addition!
The release then closes with an essay on the film and director Luiz Valdez, written by Yolanda Machado and found in the included insert.
The features are ultimately fine, though it’s a little frustrating Criterion didn’t (or couldn’t) get more new material, whether it be interviews with the cast members or even more content around Valens directly or “the day the music died.”
There's a real missed opportunity here regarding the release's supplements, but the audio/video presentation is solid.