Selena Movie Review

Movie Review by Anthony Leong © Copyright 1997

Grammy-Winning Singer Selena Killed in Shooting at Texas Motel
CORPUS CHRISTI, Tex., March 31, 1995-- Selena, the 23 year-old reigning queen of the Tejano music world, was shot and killed today at a Corpus Christi motel...

- New York Times

Jennifer Lopez stars as Selena

"Selena" is the bittersweet story of Selena Quintanilla-Perez, filled with the triumphs and tragedies of her short but fulfilled life. To the uninitiated, Selena was a spirited Mexican-American songstress that dominated the Latin charts in both the United States and Mexico, with many number one hits and a Grammy award. She even managed to cross over to the English market shortly before being tragically killed at the age of 23.

When I'm up on the stage, I feel like... like I can be anything I want to be.

This simple and honest film, respectfully directed by Gregory Nava ("El Norte" and "My Family" were his two prior efforts), follows the trials and tribulations of the Quintanilla family, beginning with the dashed doo-wop dreams of Abraham Quintanilla, who headed a failed band called 'Los Dinos', whose brand of music was rejected by the anti-Chicano Anglo venues, and by the Mexican clubs that hated Anglo music, espcially the kinds you couldn't dance to. The story then picks up when Abraham is much older (played by Edward James Olmos), married, and with a family of his own. His passion for music is ignited once again when he sees the budding talent in his daughter Selena (played by newcomer Becky Lee Meza).

Selena is just a little girl, and even if she keeps going and keeps singing, Tejano music is all men... you know that. Women are not successful.
Marcella, everything you are saying-- I understand. But she is special. She's got it. I can feel it... she's gonna make it.

Excited by the prospect of the Quintanilla name being heard in the musical halls of Texas once again, and reluctantly supported by his wife Marcella (Constance Marie), Abraham rounds up some second-hand musical instruments and enlists Selena for vocals, sister Susie for drums, and brother A.B. for guitar. For the first little while, when the three Quintanilla children prefer to play outside instead of being cooped up indoors for practice, progress is slow. But as they grow, so does the talent of 'Selena y Los Dinos', ascending from gigs in the family restaurant and third-rate county fairs, to headlining at popular venues. By the age of fifteen, Selena's name had become synonymous with Tejano music, a blissful musical form reflecting the multi-cultural experience of Mexican-Americans; "It's got polka in it, a little bit of country, a little bit of jazz. Fuse all those types of music together... I think that's where you get Tejano", as Selena described it.

But you know that if this gets serious there's trouble, you know that, right? Abraham's not gonna like it-- Selena getting serious with a guy.

It is in this last time period the bulk of the story takes place. Selena, on the verge of womanhood (now played by Jennifer Lopez, who also appeared in Nava's previous films), finds herself placed precariously between the wishes of her father, and the need to find her own path. At first, the conflicts between father and daughter are minor, such as Selena's choice of attire while on stage (a great moment, when a shocked Abraham looks up to see Selena dancing on stage in a bustiere-- and not much else). But the conflict is soon aggravated with the arrival of a new guitarist to the band, Chris Perez (John Seda of "Homicide: Life on the Street").

No, you listen to me! If you think I'm going to allow you to mess up my family, ruin everything we worked for, you're wrong!

Abraham is reluctant to hire the former heavy-metaller, because of his long hair and loud unruly choice of music, but the rest of the Quintanilla clan take a liking to the newcomer, especially Selena. Chris and Selena soon fall in love... and Abraham explodes. Both father and daughter are adamant in their positions-- Abraham, realizing his dreams of stardom through his daughter, finds it difficult to let go and allow Selena to make her own choices; Selena finds herself torn between the love for her father and her need to find her own voice, and her own happiness.

It's hard to describe... I just had this feeling like my dreams were the same as all those people out there in the audience... like all their hopes were centered on me. I just felt lucky. I felt really lucky.
The real Selena

The story ends tragically with the shooting death of Selena, a short few weeks following the apex of Selena's stardom, a sold-out concert entertaining thousands of her fans at the Houston Astrodome. The shooter is the former president of her fan club, Yolanda Salvidar (Lupe Ontiveros), who was caught stealing money from Selena's newly-opened clothing boutique.

The film does not dwell for long on this part of her life, because it is a celebration of a young woman who pursued her dreams and not only did she find happiness, but she also touched the lives of her fans with her music. "Selena" calls to mind another film that was out in the Eighties about another Mexican-American musician whose rise to stardom was also cut short by misfortune-- Ritchie Valens, whose life was portrayed in "La Bamba". In fact, there is much in common between these two singers. Despite finding fame at a relatively young age, both singers kept their lives centered around their families and sense of strong family values; their Mexican-American traditions figured prominently in their music; and they both found themselves in an 'amor prohibido'.

They don't accept us over there, they never have.
Hello... we're Mexican!
No... we are Mexican-American, and they don't like Mexican-Americans. And they can be mean and they can tear us apart.

The emotional core of the film is the relationship between Selena and her father. They both have the same goal, but with different motivations and means to reach that goal. Whereas Selena is uninterested in her heritage and is hesitant to embrace it, Abraham is rigidly traditionalist yet feels handicapped by his background, seeing it as a weakness, recalling the prejudice in his life from both sides of the border. As time passes, these two contrasting personalities move towards a middle-ground, Selena cultivating an appreciation for her father's legacy, and Abraham discarding the prejudicial mindset that he has carried with him for many years. Together they build a bridge of acceptance for both the American and Mexican aspects of their lives.

Listen, being Mexican-American is tough. The Anglos jump all over you if you don't speak English perfectly. Mexicans jump all over you if you don't speak Spanish perfectly. We gotta be twice as perfect as everyone else.

Though her acting wavers in quality in a few scenes, Jennifer Lopez is perfectly suited for the role, bringing across the spunk and star-qualities of Selena, right down to her distinctive pouty smile. The enthusiasm she puts into the role is unmistakable, making it easy to forgive her fumbles. Olmos is also believable as Abraham, breathing life and a sense of conviction into his portrayal of a father, though elated over her daughter's success, is fearful of her to growing up too quickly. The rest of the cast is satisfactory, and the only sore point was Jacob Vargas, who I found distracting on several occasions with his stilted oration.

The direction by Nava is well-executed, filled with many heart-warming moments and effortlessly taking us through the emotional highs-and-lows of Selena's life. However, he does go overboard with a few unnecessarily melodramatic insert-scenes, particularly in Selena's childhood, at an outdoor concert in Monterrey, and a scene at the Grammy Awards, which clashed with the unassuming tone of the rest of the film. As I watched the Monterrey concert scene, where Nava made full use of the 1.85:1 aspect ratio with a split-screen montage, I chuckled at the odd use of time-lapse photography of flowers and clouds, supposedly used to underscore the power of Selena's music. But it is merely a small complaint in an otherwise beautiful film.

Who calls this child to walk on her own?
Who leads her down this treacherous road?
She's dancin' to a song we can't hear.
Caminando en calle 12 (Walkin' down 12th Street),
Debes estar en la escuela (You should be in school),
Dulce Angelita (Sweet little angel),
De quién eres tú (Whose baby are you)?

- "Baila Conmigo (God's Child)"

Even if you've never heard of Selena or her music, "Selena" is a powerful story and a tribute to the young woman that managed to defy the odds and succeed. It is a film that will help you gain an appreciation for the sense of loss felt by the music world and her fans, and will also ensure that Selena's name will not be forgotten.

Selena Quintanilla-Perez April 16, 1971 - March 31, 1995

Images courtesy of Warner Brothers. All rights reserved.

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