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REVIEW – Selena

Directed by: Gregory Nava
Produced by: Abraham Quintanilla Jr., Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Katz
Written by: Gregory Nava
Edited by: Nancy Richardson
Cinematography by: Edward Lachman
Music by: Dave Grusin
Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Jacob Vargas, Lupe Ontiveros, Jackie Guerra, Rebecca Lee Meza, Panchito Gómez
Year: 1997

April 16, 2019 would have been the 48th birthday of influential Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Tragically, Selena was murdered just shy of her 24th birthday on March 31, 1995 by the former head of her fan club, Yolanda Saldívar, who had been recently fired for embezzling money. Despite her young age and shortened career, Selena has gone on to become one of the highest selling Latino artists of all time and has gone on to be a major influence on countless artists after her. I was only 8 when she died and despite having heard a few of her songs here and there, I was not exactly aware of her as an artist until the film based on her life was released a mere two years after her death. The film became a staple in my family’s household, thanks in large part to my younger sister, who also had the film’s soundtrack and, I believe, some of Selena’s other albums. After moving out on my own, I largely forgot about the film beyond a few references (“Selinas!” “It looks like ‘Papa Yoyos’!” etc.), a general feeling that the film was mediocre, but the music was excellent, and so when theatres in my area decided to mark the singer’s birthday this past week with a screening, I decided to revisit the film and see if the experience could help me not only reassess it as a film, but see also if the film could provide me with some insight into the singer’s life, culture, and impact as an artist.

I had until recently misjudged the film as a somewhat premature means of the family enshrining the memory of their daughter in film, but it turns out that’s not quite what happened. Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, fast-tracked the film into production due in large part to a string of unauthorized biographies and tabloid stories that were being quickly released in the wake of his daughter’s death. Understandably troubled by the various narratives the vultures and tabloids were spinning at the time, the Quintanilla family, along with Selena’s husband Chris Pérez, wanted to ensure that theirs was the verison that would remain prominent in the public’s mind, providing the filmmakers and actors with extensive access to their lives in the process, with Abraham himself serving as one of the film’s producers.

Selena is first introduced to us at the height of her musical fame, performing at the Houston Astrodome on February 26, 1995, but it quickly flashes back, at first to Abraham’s life as a young doo-wop singer who is rejected by both white and Mexican audiences for not being white nor Mexican enough, and then years later to Selena’s own childhood, when a still ambitious Abraham recognizes her potential as a singer and sets about molding his kids – Selena herself, sister Suzette, and brother A.B. – into a new group inspired by his old trio, the Dinos. After a rocky start, lots of complaining, and a few lessons in the importance of their heritage as Mexican-Americans, the kids do begin to embrace the lifestyle, and it’s (thankfully) not long before we fast-forward to the beginning of Selena’s rise to fame in 1989, seeing her fall in love with the band’s badboy guitarist, perform some more, open a fashion line, and then… the inevitable and sudden tragedy, just as soon as she’s beginning to crack into the English language market.

Now, I’m not going to crap all over the film, given the circumstances of why it was released and when, but it must be said that it’s just… very obviously imperfect. The film gets off to a rough start, notably in the childhood scenes, in which Selena is portrayed as basically angelic and inherently talented while her siblings struggle. It gets especially cringey in a scene where Suzette is shown climbing up onto the roof to ask Selena what she’s doing. Smiling broadly and staring into the sky, Selena replies, “I’m looking up at the moon… and I’m dreaming!” before she and the audience are treated to a vision of her as an adult on stage and in a glamorous white gown. This sort of ham-fisted approach only gets more melodramatic as the film enters her adulthood, with Selena portrayed as almost a kind of perfect, always-right Disney princess who is loved and admired by everyone and inspires others to be better than they are, including her own father, who shares a scene with her as they fight about her attraction to her eventual husband, Chris. Apart from Chris’ presence, the scene even reads a bit like Triton and Ariel fighting in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, complete with Abraham’s shocked, silent rage upon his daughter confessing she loves a man he fears will corrupt her. This may have been how it played out in real life, but the way it and other scenes like it come off in the film itself drain the scenes of their potential power. They needed something a bit grittier or less scripted. This is a biopic, so why does it read so much like an overly dramatic and rudimentarily constructed work of fiction? Even in the happier scenes, the film too often employs an overly prominent score that too often underlines the emotions we’re supposed to be feeling rather than complement the acting and script in a less forceful way.

Thankfully, the score isn’t the only piece of music that’s prominent in this film about a musician, and I would argue that the concerts are the main attraction. Hearing these songs in the theatre for the first time was enough for me to fully grasp the magnitude of what was lost with Selena’s passing. I’m no music critic (I’m barely even a film critic, amiright?), but these are all good to great examples of ‘90s pop that hold up to this day, and the appeal that the group’s Spanish language music had for even non-Spanish-speaking audiences is obvious.

The performances are also across the board very strong, with Edward James Olmos being a standout as the authoritative but loving Abraham. Most importantly, Jennifer Lopez, in a role that would catapult her into superstardom, is magnanimous as Selena, particularly in those concert scenes, but she also imbues the singer with genuine warmth, joy, playfulness, and vulnerability. Her casting was controversial at the time, her being a Puerto Rican New Yorker and Selena being a Mexican from Corpus Christi, Texas, but while it’s frequently obvious that she’s from the Bronx, the performance is strong enough to overcome that gripe, and Lopez also has great chemistry with the charming Jon Seda as Selena’s husband, Chris.

So how does Selena fair, overall, as a film? Well, what I will say is that, given the circumstances and timing of its production, I’m a bit more understanding of its faults, if only because it’s clear that everyone was still very much in the early stages of grieving the loss of the film’s central figure. If Selena’s portrayed as particularly too perfect, it’s likely because one of the film’s producers happened to be her father, who had just lost his little girl and was dealing with a bunch of tabloid nonsense on top of it all. This does mean that, in the long run, the film suffers for a less nuanced approach to exploring her life and the challenges she faced and does end up focusing perhaps far too much on the father-daughter relationship between them at the sacrifice of her other family members, but what’s there does at least convey what it was that made Selena special to them and to her fans, what she and her music meant to the Mexican-American, Tejano, and Latino cultures in general. It celebrates her life rather than focus on the tragedy cut it short. And the film does so with actors who are clearly giving it their all to respectfully but realistically portray their characters, to the point where Lopez not only convinced the family she was perfect but also turned around many a Selena fan who may have initially denounced her casting. The film may be flawed in execution, and it will never be recognized as one of the great biographical films, but in so far as helping audiences who may not be familiar with her work understand her impact and for those who loved her from the start, let’s just say that it’s hard to hold too much against even the clumsiest of tributes when they’re this earnest.

The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2 / 5

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