Lou at 55 Meets La Bamba at 30
“Lightning in a bottle” and “my Cinderella story” are the two characterizations Lou Diamond Phillips, the prolific actor-director turning 55 today, applies to his big-screen breakout role as singer/songwriter/guitarist Ritchie Valens in writer/director Luis Valdez’s fondly remembered musical biopic La Bamba (1987). Although on the film shoot the non-Latino Phillips was himself already seven years older than the 17-year-old Valens was when he perished in that shattering “day the music died” plane crash that occurred 58 years ago this month, the future star – 30 years hence – of Stand and Deliver, The First Power, Young Guns, The Dark Wind, Courage Under Fire and Longmire was at that early career moment a mirror of Valens, a sweet-natured, fresh-faced presence off-stage and a committed and hot-wired firebrand in love with working things out once the camera was turned on. For the film’s subsequent legion of fans, its dual storylines of family struggles and music-making innovation were fused together by the performances of not only Phillips as Ritchie but also Esai Morales as conflicted half-brother Bob, Rosana de Soto as his hard-working mother Connie, Elizabeth Peña as his half-sister Connie, Danielle von Zerneck as Ritchie’s first love Donna Ludwig (the classmate who inspired the hit song named after her) and Joe Pantoliano as Richie’s manager/record producer Bob Keane, with Los Lobos rocking powerfully on the soundtrack in a stunning recreation of the title tune. For Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, “The best things in it are the most unexpected things: the portraits of everyday life, of a loving mother, of a brother who loves and resents him, of a kid growing up and tasting fame and leaving everyone standing around at his funeral shocked that his life ended just as it seemed to be beginning.” La Bamba marked for Phillips the beginning of a career full of unexpected things that would include more musical odysseys (a Tony®-nominated turn in the 1996 Broadway revival of The King and I, and another regal reign as Arthur in a touring production of Camelot), directing for television and film, songwriting and teaching. Whatever the role or production capacity, Phillips remains grateful for the door La Bamba opened. As he told interviewer Vanessa Erazo at Remezcla.com in November 2015 around the release of The 33: “I’ve felt accepted from day one, and it goes back to La Bamba. Some people raised their eyebrows, yeah, but for 30 years now like you said, some people look at me like an honorary Latino, or an honorary Lakota or Cheyenne. I think it’s because everybody knows that I’m sincere, and where I’m coming from is a place of respect. And I’m not trying to cash in on being ‘ethnic’ you know? I mean these are the roles that I’m right for physically and when I take on these roles I try to get them right.” Indeed, right from the start, as proved by Twilight Time’s extras-packed hi-def Blu-ray of the birthday honoree’s La Bamba, available here: http://www.screenarchives.com/title_detail.cfm/ID/27856/LA-BAMBA-1987/.