Americans love success stories, particularly those with humble beginnings and unhappy endings. So when the phenomenally popular Selena Quintanilla Perez, the Grammy-winning Queen of Tejano Music, was shot to death in March 1995, scant weeks before her 24th birthday, “Selena” the movie was only a matter of time.
In the tradition of “Lady Sings the Blues,” “The Rose,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It” and other sudsy tales of singers and their woes, “Selena” is in part a completely predictable Latino soap opera that should satisfy those who complain they aren’t making movies like they like used to.
“Selena” is also reminiscent of “La Bamba’s” story of Ritchie Valens, and not just because its subject is Mexican American. Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, the film’s executive producer, had complete script approval, and the price of family cooperation, not to mention the use of Selena’s music, was the inevitable sanitizing and sentimentalization that are also Hollywood’s stock in trade.
Yet, despite all this, there are chunks of “Selena” that only a stone could resist. This movie turns out to be a celebration not only of the singer but also (as “What’s Love” was for Angela Bassett) of the actress who plays her, Jennifer Lopez.
Even in forgettable films like “Money Train” and “Jack,” Lopez’s presence and ability made her seem just one role away from stardom, and with “Selena” she’s seized the opportunity and turned in an incandescent presentation that is especially strong during the film’s numerous musical numbers.
Though Lopez lip-syncs to Selena’s voice, she makes use of her background as a dancer (she was a Fly Girl on “In Living Color”) to project an irresistible joy in performance that both does justice to Selena’s appeal and helps burn away the film’s saccharine haze.
Written and directed by Gregory Nava (“Mi Familia,” “El Norte”), “Selena” makes full use of Lopez’s charisma in its opening scene, a re-creation of the singer’s triumphant appearance before the biggest Astrodome crowd ever just a few weeks before her death. From the chaos backstage through Selena’s solo walk through a curtain to the rapture of her adoring fans, it’s just the first of the film’s string of pure Hollywood moments.
That adrenaline jolt is needed to hold attention for the next half-hour, when an extensive sequence of flashbacks goes into Selena’s family history, starting with her father’s attempt to start a doo-wop group called Los Dinos in Corpus Christi, Texas, in 1961.
Defeated by a combination of racism and the resistance of Mexican Americans to anything you can’t dance to, Abraham Quintanilla (Edward James Olmos) puts music out of his mind until he discovers that his youngest daughter Selena (played by 10-year-old Becky Lee Meza) has a voice like the mature Ethel Merman.
Much to the discomfort of wife Marcela (Constance Marie), Quintanilla insists that Selena and her two siblings (once grown, played by Jacob Vargas and Jackie Guerra) form a group. He even quits his job to open a restaurant so they’ll have a showcase. Quintanilla even teaches his daughter to sing in Spanish though she doesn’t know the language because “you’ve got to be who you are, you can’t change it, and you’re Mexican deep inside.”
Speeches like that, and a later one about the difficulties of being a Mexican American (“You’ve got to be twice as perfect. . . . It’s exhausting”) indicate that even without Quintanilla’s supervision, Nava would likely have made this kind of a soft film. While the writer-director’s fearlessness in the face of emotion has its charms, Nava’s willingness to state everything in the most obvious terms and the film’s lack of dramatic texture do get bothersome.
Most of “Selena” is taken up with the singer’s gradual but inexorable rise to the top. Despite resistance of Mexican Americans to a female tejano star and the skepticism of Mexicans about a woman whose command of Spanish was less than perfect, Selena easily wins everyone over and her willingness to accept herself as she is turns her into a key role model for Latinas.
Unlike, say, Tina Turner in “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” however, the young adult Selena is presented without any life-threatening problems. Her main conflict, hardly shattering, was a budding romance with handsome, heavy metalish lead guitarist Chris Perez (Jon Seda) that father Abraham is determined to quash.
Overall, Selena’s most persistent difficulty turns out to be dealing with her father, a man with a fierce temper and a will of iron who threw one of many fits when she first tried out her trademark bustier on stage. It’s a measure of how stern a taskmaster the senior Quintanilla must have been that despite this film’s tendency to whitewash, as played by Olmos he comes off as a single-minded tyrant who loved his daughter but was determined to run her life.
“Selena” closes with documentary footage of the real singer, and it’s a shock to realize that Lopez so much resembles her that for a instant you can’t tell one from the other. And it’s in fact a melding of the two, of the real story and the actress’ ability to convey it, that creates emotional connections destined to outlive the doses of biopic boilerplate that surround it.
* MPAA rating: PG, for some mild language and thematic elements. Times guidelines: Selena’s murder takes place off-screen.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Jennifer Lopez: Selena Quintanilla Perez
Edward James Olmos: Abraham Quintanilla Jr.
Jon Seda: Chris Perez
Constance Marie: Marcela Quintanilla
Jacob Vargas: Abie Quintanilla
A Q Productions-Esparza/Katz production, released by Warner Bros. Director Gregory Nava. Executive producer Abraham Quintanilla. Producers Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Katz. Screenplay by Gregory Nava. Cinematographer Edward Lachman. Editor Nancy Richardson. Costumes Elisabetta Beraldo. Music Dave Grusin. Production design Cary White. Art director Ed Vega. Set designer Adele Plauche. Running time: 2 hour, 5 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.