SAN ANTONIO — Search the internet for video evidence of Ritchie Valens’s iconic-but-all-too-brief career as a Latino rock pioneer, and you’d find yourself searching for hours.
In fact, there’s only one bit of footage that’s easily found on YouTube—a brief performance by Valens in the 1959 movie “Go, Johnny, Go” that sees him crooning to some club-goers. That film is only 75 minutes long, features the likes of Alan Freed, Chuck Berry and Eddie Cochran, and was released four months after Valens died in a tragic plane crash at just 17 years old.
The real-life story of Valens was over right as its second chapter was beginning. But its first has had such a profound impact on pop culture – specifically the timely infusion of Chicano influence into rock ‘n roll as the genre was beginning to blossom – that it’s easy to forget the California musician’s professional career lasted less than a full year.
That brevity also made things a bit difficult for the young actor who would portray Valens 28 years after his death in the film named after his biggest hit, “La Bamba.”
Lou Diamond Phillips – who on Sunday was in San Antonio to host a screening of the film at downtown’s Tobin Center – said that "Go, Johnny, Go" clip went a long way toward shaping how he would embody Valens on-screen.
“Just to see a little bit of his body language, getting a sense of who he was,” Phillips said. “I was pretending to be a rock star. I’m still pretending.”
[Watch the full interview below]
The actor – who would go on to build a resume as varied and diverse as anyone’s – said he was cast barely a week before shooting was set to start; before the film would prove to be his breakout hit, it would be his trial by fire.
Phillips had barely even picked up a guitar prior to shooting “La Bamba." He was somewhat familiar with the music of Valens, thanks to his father, but even less aware of his backstory.
Thankfully, on hand were the people who could best help him in his portrayal, and help flesh out who Valens was beyond the musical sensation.
“I hung out with the family a lot. Long conversations with not only his brother, Bob, played by Esai Morales in the movie, but his sister, Connie, who was 12 at the time and some of her remembrances,” Phillips said. “I got to become an expert real quick.”
Valens’s family was deeply involved in the film, on set every day, and not just behind the camera. If you look closely at some of “La Bamba’s” busier scenes, you might notice them; Phillips says they appear throughout the movie, bits of the real story infused with Hollywood’s re-telling.
Early in the production, when the crew was shooting Valens’s suburban garage tryout for The Silhouettes that would spark his rise, one of those family members provided the stamp of approval that Phillips needed. He said one of Valens’s aunts turned to the director after seeing the first take and said, “That’s Ritchie.”
The relationship with the family began even earlier than that, on the morning of their very first day of filming.
“My pickup time was, I think, 6 a.m. to go to set. At 5:30, half an hour before the actual pickup, there’s this pounding on the door and it’s Ritchie’s mom, Connie,” Phillips said. “She’s going, ‘Ritchie, wake up! It’s time to go to work!’ And I went, ‘OK, here we are.’ It was this total method immersion.”
Some time later, at a southern California event honoring Valens, Phillips says he would remember Connie turning to him and saying: “You gave me my son back.”
Life imitates art
Phillips’s youth helps him pull off playing the teenager musician. Though in his mid-20s while shooting, he easily passes for a high schooler yearning for the big stage in “La Bamba.”
Born in the Philippines but spending his formative years in Corpus Christi, Phillips only had a handful of acting credits in small-budget films leading up to Luis Valdez’s movie. It’s not far off to say “La Bamba” is the story of two artists getting their big break – Valens and Phillips.
Over 30 years later, Phillips is still acting, except now he’s appeared in TV shows, on Broadway, and alongside the likes of Edward James Olmos, Denzel Washington and Emilio Estevez. He’s been nominated for a Golden Globe, an Emmy and a Tony; he won an Independent Spirit Award in 1989, for his turn in “Stand and Deliver.”
And on this day, South Texas was serving as a quick, one-day getaway for the “La Bamba” event, organized to benefit the Starbright Foundation.
“I was actually working in New York until the wee hours on Friday night, and I have to work tomorrow night,” Phillips said Sunday. “This is literally to come in just for the Tobin Center, just for my friend’s foundation and for San Antonio. It just became obvious to do ‘La Bamba’ because this is the 60th anniversary of the day the music died. February 3, ’59, when the plane went down with Ritchie and Buddy Holly and (J.P.) ‘The Big Bopper’ (Richardson).”
Not that Phillips minds. “La Bamba” – a story that dips its toes into inclusion, diversity and the importance of getting new kinds of voices in front of a microphone – is as relevant in 2019 as it was upon its release in 1987.
He is well aware of its staying power as new generations continue to discover it, and, through it, Ritchie’s music. Without him, there may very well not be Carlos Santana or Los Lobos—two musical acts who contributed their talents to the movie.
“Not to ennoble it too much, but I think the film certainly focuses on Ritchie and his contributions as opposed to him just being a footnote or an asterisk in Buddy Holly’s career. He was, if not the first, then one of the first Latino rockers,” Phillips said. “And I think that he would have done amazing things going forward.”