Selena (United States, 1997)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Going into Selena, I didn't know or care much about the life of the late Tex-Mex singer, whose death in 1995 came just as she was attempting to break into the mainstream American pop market. As far as I was aware, Selena's tragic end was just another minor footnote in music history -- I hadn't heard of her before and I didn't expect to hear of her again. Then along came this movie, and, sitting in a darkened theater, watching Selena's story unfold, my perceptions changed. I not only cared, but understood a measure of the tragedy that had stricken her fans.

It would have been easy to trivialize Selena's story, turning it into a sudsy, made-for-TV type motion picture. The details for something lurid and exploitative are there, but that was never an approach considered by writer/director Gregory Nava. This is a simple story of hope and triumph, of one girl with the drive to succeed defying the odds and following her dream. It's not an original tale -- movies like this abound -- but Nava's point-of-view is fresh.

In 1995's My Family, Nava explored the importance of blood ties within a Mexican American family. Similar themes are woven into Selena. This is a multigenerational story, exploring not only Selena's realization of her dreams, but the importance of her father's vision to all that she accomplished. It was his belief in her that prodded her to follow her own path, and his support that convinced her that she could succeed in a field where every other Mexican American woman had failed.

Nava has brought back much of the cast of My Family to star in Selena. The two key on-screen contributors to this movie -- Jennifer Lopez as Selena and Edward James Olmos as her father, Abraham Quintanilla -- had roles in the previous feature. Both are superb choices for their parts here. Olmos breathes life and vitality into Abraham, a man who loves his daughter deeply, wants her to succeed, yet, by his own admission, doesn't know how to let go. There's nothing cliched about the way Olmos approaches Abraham, who, in less expert hands, could have become a hackneyed type.

Jennifer Lopez is radiant as the title character, conveying the boundless energy and enthusiasm that exemplified Selena, while effectively copying not only her look, but her mannerisms. I wonder if Selena's family, upon watching this performance, felt an eerie sense of deja vu. It's apparent from the clips of the real performer shown at the movie's conclusion that Lopez has done a masterful job of re-creating a personality.

The supporting roles are no less capably filled. Constance Marie plays Selena's mother, Marcela. Jackie Guerra and Jacob Vargas are her sister, Suzette, and brother, Abie. Jon Seda is Chris Perez, Selena's husband. Lupe Ontiveros portrays Yolanda Saldivar, the president of Selena's fan club who eventually shot the singer to death. Finally, making her screen debut is Becky Lee Meza as Selena at age nine. While Meza's performance is a little rough around the edges, she shows the kind of spunk we expect from someone who would grow up to become such a charismatic figure.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Selena is how it deals with culture clashes. At one point, Abraham points out to his daughter that for her to be accepted on both sides of the border, she must be "more Mexican than most Mexicans" and "more American than most Americans." She must speak English and Spanish flawlessly, and has to understand and identify with icons of both cultures. This is a lesson that Selena takes to heart. She is an American, but she is also a Mexican, and she learns to draw from both cultures to form her own style.

Nava's film flows beautifully, and the concert sequences effectively capture the electricity of such events. Selena achieves the perfect emotional pitch for the subject, and, though this is a celebration of life, youth, and family, our awareness of the inevitable end lends a sense of poignancy to the proceedings. It's impossible to watch Selena's triumphant Astrodome concert without remembering that her life would be snuffed out less than a month later.

Fame often follows tragedy, especially when the victim is cut down in the prime of life. James Dean. Buddy Holly. Roberto Clemente. These are just a few names in a long, long list. Now, Selena has joined that roster. This movie will serve to further elevate her name and advance her legend. Had she lived, she would have turned twenty-six this year, and people would have said that her whole life was in front of her. But Yolanda Saldivar's gun wrote the final chapter to that book two years ago. Now, there is a beginning, a middle, and, sadly, an end. And, as told by Gregory Nava, with an assist from the Quintanilla family (who were heavily involved in the production), Selena is a shining story.

Selena (United States, 1997)

Director: Gregory Nava
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Jacob Vargas, Jackie Guerra, Lupe Ontiveros, Becky Lee Meza
Screenplay: Gregory Nava
Cinematography: Edward Lachman
Music: Dave Grusin
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:05
U.S. Release Date: 1997-03-21
MPAA Rating: "PG"
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1