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:
- Anti-Role Model: Bob to Richie.
- Adaptational Attractiveness: While Valens wasn't bad looking in real life, Diamond Phillips had movie-star looks in comparison.
- 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.
- Big Brother Worship: Richie to Bob
- Biopic: Naturally, with it being solely about Ritchie's life and death.
- Book Ends: The film begins and ends with the music "Sleep Walk" by Santo & Johnny.
- Breaking Bad News Gently: Donna sees her friends crying at school after hearing the news of Valens' death. She asks what's wrong and one of her friends gently tells her, "You'd better sit down, Donna." A few cuts later, she blankly stares forward as she silently cries.
- Dating What Daddy Hates: A lot of the early drama comes from Donna's father not liking her dating a Chicano. Her father buys her a car so he won't walk her home and, as soon as Valens leaves for a music career, he takes the car away from her.
- Downer Ending: Valens dies in a plane crash and his family and loved ones (and the fans and public who adored his music) are left grieving his loss.
- Foregone Conclusion: This movie is all about "the day the music died", which means everybody already knows Richie dies in the end.
- Foreshadowing: “I’m gonna be a star, but stars don’t fall out of the sky, do they?”
- Hate Sink:
- Donna’s father is a borderline racist control freak who goes way out of his way to prevent her and Richie from seeing each other.
- The leader of the Silhouettes. From the start it is clear that he doesn’t like Richie. He intentionally prevents Richie from singing at a garage party and mistreats his band mates, leading to him being voted out.
- Irony: Cruel irony at that. When it came to who got on the plane, Valens and his group did a coin toss as to who would get on or be forced to take the bus (as the plane had limited seats). Valens won and mentions how it was the first time he ever won a coin toss. As he got seated and was clearly nervous, he was reassured everything would be fine as "the sky belongs to the stars" and he smiles. It's the last time we see him.
- Killed Offscreen: Ritchie, Buddy Holly, and Big Bopper. We see their plane take off and the next scene is the radio reporting that it crashed.
- Intrafamilial Class Conflict: As Ritchie's career begins to take off, it generates a degree of resentment with his older brother Bob. During a Christmas party, Ritchie asks Bob if he bought a gift for their mother, to which Bob explodes at him saying that he should have bought it since he had money.
- Mood Whiplash: The movie begins with a group of kids playing basketball, in slow motion and a blue-filtered screen, accompanied by the tune "Sleep Walk". During the scene, we see a couple of planes flying over them. We focus on a kid tying his shoes, and suddenly the planes collide with each other in midair. Then we cut to Ritchie waking up, revealing it to be a dream/bad memory.
- Nightmare Sequence: Twice, about the plane crash at Richie's neighborhood. The first being the Dream Intro.
- Oh, Crap!: Bob, when he hears on the radio that Richie's plane crashed with no survivors, runs to his mother to break the news personally before she finds out through the radio. Sadly, he's too late and makes it in time to see her frozen in shock after just hearing the news.
- Outliving One's Offspring: The ultimate fear of adults - "No, not Ritchie! Not my Ritchie!"
- Parental Favoritism: Bob believes Connie is guilty of this towards Richie.
- Parting-Words Regret: Averted, albeit just barely. Ritchie and Bob reconciled over the phone before he got 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.
- Rite-of-Passage Name Change: Although it was generally a black mark on the early film and music industries that they Americanized ethnic names, Keen treats Richie like someone who won't mind at all.
- Say My Name/Skyward Scream: The last line of the film comes from Bob, who goes to a bridge contemplating Ritchie's death after his funeral. He breaks down and screams Ritchie's name in grief. The movie ends with a slow-motion flashback of an earlier scene of him and Ritchie running up the hill, one of their few good times together.
- Title Drop: Near the end of the film, Ritchie sings the titular song he was famous for. It is also the first song to play during the credits.