Rock & roll pioneer Ritchie Valens and the San Fernando Valley will forever be synonymous. Take a ride through the northeast Valley and, whether it's a mural or a park, you’re sure to come across a tribute to the Latino rocker, who hailed from Pacoima and who tragically died on Feb. 3, 1959 at just 17. The plane crash that also claimed the lives of Valens’ contemporaries, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper, later became known as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s epic 1971 musical portrait of America, “American Pie.”
Almost 30 years later and a staggering 14 years before Valens would be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, his story was immortalized on film. La Bamba, released on July 24, 1987, introduced movie audiences to Lou Diamonds Phillips, who, in his first starring film role, played Valens. The movie also produced a hit soundtrack featuring Los Lobos' recordings of such Valens hits as “Come On, Let’s Go,” “Donna,” and, of course, “La Bamba.” The album was at No. 1 on the Billboard charts for two weeks in 1987.
Though La Bamba tells the story of Valens’ fast rise to fame, Luis Valdez’s film is, at its essence, about the successes and struggles of a Latino family living in the San Fernando Valley, making the film as much about the character of place as the film’s living characters.
With the exception of a handful of scenes shot in the southern border town of Calexico, which doubled for Tijuana, and in Hollister, La Bamba was shot entirely in the L.A. area. The film’s veteran location manager, Richard Davis, tells us that Valdez wanted to incorporate into the film as many as possible of the Valley spots where the Valenzuela family lived, worked and went to school. “Luis made it clear that he wanted as much reality — as many of the places that actually were in the story — to be in the movie. He didn’t want to go to find a place that was more cinematic that was less historical,” Davis says. “He called them ‘reality beats,’ and we got them in wherever we could.”
Trying to include all of the real places wasn’t a total success, Davis admits. “We ended up going [other] places because what was there [in the ’80s] didn’t look like what had been there in the ’50s,” he says. The same can be said for some of La Bamba's filming locations three decades after the movie was made.
For La Bamba’s 30th anniversary, we spoke with Davis at length and, with his help, revisited many of the film’s L.A.-area locations. So come on, let’s go!