La Bamba (1987) - Plot Summary Poster



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  • Biographical story of the rise from nowhere of early rock and roll singer Ritchie Valens who died at age 17 in a plane crash with Buddy Holly and The Big Bopper.

  • This is the true story of Ritchie Valens, a young rock and roll singer who tragically died in a plane crash at age 17. The film follows Ritchie from his days in Pacoima, California where he and his family make a meager living working on farms to his rise as a star. The film also focuses on Ritchie's friendship and rivalry with his older brother Bob Morales and his relationship with Donna Ludwig, his girlfriend.


The synopsis below may give away important plot points.


  • Richard Steven Valenzuela (Lou Diamond Phillips) is a normal teenage boy living in San Diego, California who becomes a rock 'n' roll superstar under the stage name Ritchie Valens. He meets and falls in love with fellow high school student Donna Ludwig, for whom he wrote a song that became a number one hit ("Donna"). However, her father is shown as having problems with his daughter dating Ritchie, which causes friction between Donna and Ritchie. The movie also has several subplots, such as his relationship with his mother Connie Valenzuela (Rosanna DeSoto) and half-brother Bob Morales (Esai Morales), and the jealousy Bob felt toward Ritchie because of his success.

    In one scene, Bob wins an important art contest that helps promising cartoonists, only to throw away his prize because, in his mind, his mother doesn't seem to care enough. Bob resorts to drinking heavily and, at one point, leads him to end up crying in front of his mother's door yelling "I want to see my daughter!" in reference to the child he sired with Ritchie's ex-girlfriend, Rosie (Elizabeth Peña).

    However, when they get an opportunity, Ritchie and Bob sneak out for a good time. On one occasion, they take a road trip to Tijuana, visiting one of the local nightclubs where Ritchie discovers the song that would eventually become his biggest hit, "La Bamba".

    Meanwhile, the film also focuses on Ritchie's aviophobia (fear of flying), and a recurring dream he has as a result of a mid air collision between two planes that actually occurred directly over Ritchie's school, in which Ritchie's best friend was killed by one of the fallen aircraft. Eventually, he must conquer his fear when asked to perform his song "Donna" on American Bandstand. His manager, Bob Keane (Joe Pantoliano), helps him by giving him a little vodka to calm his nerves during the flight to Philadelphia for the Bandstand appearance.

    As Valens becomes more famous, his responsibilities change. He has to go on the ill-fated 1959 Winter Party Dance Tour with Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw) and "The Big Bopper" (Stephen Lee) after his hits, "La Bamba" and "Donna", reach the top of the Billboard charts.

    Valens, Holly, and Bopper take off in an airplane during a light snowstorm for their fateful flight on February 3, 1959 (a day that becomes known as "The Day the Music Died"). Before that, Ritchie makes a call to his brother, wherein they patch up their differences. He even invites Bob to fly out to Chicago to join the tour for family support.

    The next day, as Bob is fixing his mother's car, he hears the news bulletin on the radio that his brother's plane crashed without any survivors. Bob darts out of his driveway in an attempt to get to his mother before she hears the bad news through the radio. Unfortunately, by the time he gets there she stands immobile. The news hits the whole Valenzuela family very hard. In the final scene, Bob is walking over a bridge and screaming the name of Ritchie, remembering all the good times they had together (in flashback).

    We then see Lou Diamond Phillips and the Mexican American rock band Los Lobos performing Valens' version of "La Bamba" accompanied by the closing credits.

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