Valdez and star Lou Diamond Phillips reflect on the 1987 film ahead of its theatrical re-release in partnership with Turner Classic Movies.

By Rosy Cordero
April 15, 2021 at 02:48 PM EDT
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La Bamba

On July 21, Luis Valdez's film La Bamba will mark its 34th anniversary — and he's not interested in having it remade. Valdez and the star of the hit biopic, Lou Diamond Phillips, spoke to EW exclusively ahead of the film's theatrical re-release with Turner Classic Movies

"I have not been approached about doing that, but I don't know why they would want to remake it. It's fresh as it is," Valdez says of the 1987 film about the life and early death of Mexican American rocker Ritchie Valens, which will screen April 18, 21, and 22 in participating cities.

Valens died in a plane crash in Iowa on Feb. 3, 1959, better known as the Day the Music Died; he was just 17. Fellow musicians Buddy Holly and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson were also killed, as was pilot Roger Peterson.

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Lous Diamond Phillips in 'La Bamba'
| Credit: Everett Collection

For Phillips, who up until his starring role in La Bamba was mostly cast in stereotypical parts, portraying the young rock star catapulted his career to another level. With Valens dying just eight months into his musical career, Phillips says he carries a piece of Valens with him through all his triumphs.

"We wouldn't be here today having this conversation if it weren't for Luis Valdez and La Bamba, and of course, Ritchie," the actor says. "I commemorate every Feb. 3 and I tweet about him. I spoke to [Valens' sister] Connie last week. I feel like I would've had a career because it's what I was after and what I was doing, though it wouldn't have been the same as what I have now — La Bamba shot me out of a cannon. It was my Cinderella story, and still is."

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Luis Valdez directing 'La Bamba'
| Credit: Everett Collection

Valdez, a pioneer of the Chicano Movement, is also considered by many to be the father of Chicano film and theater, thanks in part to his establishing the Mexican American theater troupe known as El Teatro Campesino with Cesar Chavez in 1965. The troupe is still active today.

Before La Bamba, Valdez became the first Chicano director to have a play on Broadway with Zoot Suit, which was adapted for the big screen in 1981.

"Luis Valdez was a pioneer in being a voice behind the camera as a writer, director, and producer," Phillips says. "He played a big role in advancing the movement that we continue to fight today across many communities, like the African American, Latinx, Asian American, and LGBTQ communities, who are looking for their voices to be represented. La Bamba is emblematic of that, of a young person wanting to achieve the American dream, looking to take their seat at the table."

He adds, "The film is still so relevant, it's stood up to time and new people are discovering it all the time. The themes still resonate, like opportunity, representation, and accessibility, and La Bamba was at the forefront of that."

Valdez knew what he was looking for in the actor who would take the lead, with help from Valens' family and associates he interviewed for background. Armed with firsthand accounts, the search began and ended with Phillips sealing the deal.

"I don't think any rock & roll artists can get to the top without fierceness, and Ritchie had that killer instinct," Valdez says. "It's in his music and the way he sings. What he did with 'La Bamba' as a folk song is amazing, but it came from his skill and his qualities as a tiger. At the same time, he was 17 years old and was very sweet. In my interviews with his family and his associates, nobody had a negative thing to say about him."

He adds, "Even though Lou had been playing gang members in Dallas, what I saw in him was his sweetness and his fierceness. He's quite a performer. I could tell when he went for a scene he really went for the throat. So the tiger was in him, too."

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