Selena opens with a re-enactment of the Tejano singer's February 1995 concert at the Astrodome. Bedecked in a sparkling purple jumpsuit, the beloved Texas native (played by Jennifer Lopez) is shown singing a few disco nuggets from her childhood, including "I Will Survive" and "Last Dance." The tunes, as performed by the beautiful, crowd-pleasing superstar, provide a high-energy musical overture for the film. And when they are considered in light of what happened only one month later -- her shocking death at the hands of her fan club president -- they take on an unmistakably tragic backbeat.
Writer/director Gregory Nava's biopic of Selena Quintanilla Perez is a dollop of old-style Hollywood gloss, an unapologetically positive account of Selena's rise from novelty child star to "Tejano Madonna," able to bridge power pop and cumbias in a single bound. As played by uncanny look-alike Lopez (they share a bold voluptuousness and a rich, wide-mouthed smile), Selena is an endlessly chirpy and good-natured girl who is fueled not only by the juice of performing but also by the closeness of her family. A good deal of that familial bonding comes full-throttle from the stubborn if well-meaning Abraham Quintanilla Jr. (a bearish Edward James Olmos), her father, manager, musical guru and staunchest defender. It is in the portrayal of the bullish Abraham that Selena offers its only patina of tension -- from his authoritarian manner to his overprotectiveness -- but it's all ultimately rooted in the very safe notion that these are merely innocent crossover dreams being nurtured, looked after and realized.
Selena kicks off its narrative with a 1961 flashback of a younger Abraham and his doo-wop group, the Dinos, encountering resistance from Mexican-American audiences in Corpus Christi who disdained the idea of their people aping the harmony pop of whites. "We want to dance," a large woman shouts over the din of bottles being thrown. Add in the fact that the Dinos can't even get an audition at a white club because of their brown skin, and the stage is set in Selena for the particular hardships facing Mexican-Americans -- and really, any immigrants -- who are seen as too much of one, not enough of the other.
We shift forward and find Abraham urging -- really, forcing -- his kids, who include Selena's siblings Abie (Jacob Vargas) and Suzette (Jackie Guerra), to start a family band; significantly, it's "Blue Moon" he has them play. These early scenes, featuring the darling Becky Lee Meza as the younger Selena, contains information that will probably surprise audiences unfamiliar with Selena's background: that she grew up with Spanish as her second language, that her singing Tejano was calculated to appeal to certain audiences and that her initial performances in Mexico were fraught with worry about her Spanish accent. As the full-grown Lopez enters the picture (lip-synching to the real Selena), the appeal of the singer becomes all too obvious: form-fitting clothes, a rhinestone-studded bustier and a killer smile. A few dance moves certainly don't hurt the package.
"We don't want to be old-fashioned," Selena complains after her father rejects a skin-tight outfit, but Nava's film couldn't be more old-fashioned if it opened with "Once upon a time ...." Much has been made, for example, of Nava's insistence on telling the real story behind Selena's marriage to the band's guitarist, Chris Perez (played in the film by Jon Seda). Selena's father, a consultant and executive producer on the film, was apparently skittish about revealing that Selena eloped against his wishes and that it was the beginning of the end of his fierce control over her life and career.
But this isn't a shocking-truth issue, it's a Drama 101 issue -- standard intrafamily conflict stuff. And it effortlessly gives Selena both its most heartwarming scenes (as the bright-eyed superstar falls for the cuddly guitarist over pizza and stuffed animals) and its most affecting scenes (as the inevitable blowup and reconciliation with daddy follow). Seda perfectly captures a former metal dude and admitted rebel's romantic meltdown in the face of Selena's spirited charms, and Olmos showcases Abraham's abrasive reaction to their courtship with the proper undercurrent: Is he not succumbing to the same prejudices about younger people that others display toward different races? The sweet-sweet nature of the romance and the touching reconciliation are at the heart of what appeals to Nava: family ties, stretched and strained but never broken. It's what made his multigenerational soap opera Mi Familia an aw-shucks success, and it's what gives Selena its own rosy glow. From the way mother Marcella (Constance Marie) shows her ten-year-old daughter how to dance to cumbias, to the comic klutziness of Abraham as he trips over everything in sight, to the unceasing camaraderie and goodwill of the entire troupe while on the road, Nava is seeking a Partridge Family vision of the Quintanillas -- and it's easy to surrender to that vision.
The mild whitewashing niggles only a bit. Nothing is made of Abraham's taking Selena out of eighth grade for life on the road -- a mere mention of completing high school by mail is all we get -- or why an unstable character such as Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), a person with a supposedly spotty track record regarding finances and eventually Selena's killer, would be given the reins of the Selena boutiques. But Selena is still a pleasantly diverting bit of heart-tugging schmaltz, free of anything but misty-eyed optimism and giddy respect for the pop fantasies of record buyers everywhere. While the performance sequences are middling at best -- Nava won't be hired by MTV or VH1 anytime soon -- the sunniness of the whole enterprise is what sticks. Even the way Selena's death is handled -- re-created news footage quickly followed by shots of a vigil and a briskly edited montage featuring the real Selena, all set to her song "Dreaming of You" -- carries the air of something too horrible to dwell on for long.
After all, Nava's movie is about remembering Selena in all her girlish, grinning, dream-spinning cheeriness and devotion to family, and it does what movies ultimately do best: keep that stuff alive for the fans.
Directed by Gregory Nava. With Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos and Jon Seda.
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