It tells the story of late 1950s Chicano rock star Ritchie Valens, real name Richard Valenzuela, a teenager discovered by Del-Fi Records who had a meteoric rise to fame. That rise was cut tragically short when his life was taken as part of "The Day the Music Died".
The story focuses on his relationships with his mother, Connie Valenzuela; his older half-brother, Bob Morales; and his girlfriend, Donna Ludwig (the subject of his biggest song, "Donna"; it was #3 on the then-new Billboard Hot 100 when he died, and peaked at #2). It deals with Ritchie being discovered, and choosing the road to stardom as he was booked on a national tour over the winter of 1958-59 with fellow rising stars Buddy Holly (Marshall Crenshaw) and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson (Stephen Lee).
A lot of the early events of the film revolve around friction with his girlfriend's father, who had issues with his daughter dating a Mexican-American. Another source of drama is between Ritchie and Bob. Bob, himself a promising artist and aspiring cartoonist, impregnated one of Ritchie's earlier girlfriends, and was forced to marry her.
Valens' music was performed by Los Lobos, who also appeared as Valens' backup band. Several members of the actual Valenzuela family, including his mother, Connie Valenzuela, made cameos. Members of the Valdez family also played roles: Luis Valdez's brother, Daniel, played one of Ritchie's uncles.
The film was very popular, and helped lift Lou Diamond Phillips to fame. Its soundtrack went double-platinum in the United States, and finally propelled the titular song, "La Bamba," to Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987. The Los Lobos version was #1 for three weeks in the U.S., and finished #11 on the 1987 year-end chart.
This film contains examples of the following tropes:
- Arc Words: "Come On, Let's Go" — the title of one of Valens' most famous hits, and repeatedly dropped by multiple characters in the film.
- Biopic: Naturally
- Book-Ends: The film begins and ends with the music "Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny.
- Breaking Bad News Gently: "You'd better sit down, Donna."
- Dating What Daddy Hates: A lot of the early drama comes from Donna's father not liking her dating a Chicano.
- Downer Ending: Valens dies in a plane crash.
- Oh, Crap!: Bob, when he heard about the plane crash on the radio, run to his mother before she finds out. Sadly, too late.
- Parting Words Regret: Averted, Ritchie and Bob reconciled before getting on the plane.
- Primal Fear: A subject of the film is Valens' fear of flying. It stems from the fact that an airplane crash in a neighborhood playground where Ritchie lived hurt several of his friends (and killed one) when he was young.
- Say My Name/Skyward Scream: The last line of the film comes from Bob, who went to a bridge contemplating Ritchie's death after his funeral. Then he broke down and screamed Ritchie's name. The movie ends with a slow-motion scene from the beginning of the film of him and Ritchie running up the hill, one of their few good times together.