This biopic about the life and career of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, a Mexican-American singer who was tragically killed at the age of 23, feels too reverential for its own good. But it has a lot of heart and energy, and a wonderful star-making performance by Jennifer Lopez.
I’ve always known Selena as the film that put Jennifer Lopez on the map, but I never knew much about the real Selena, and even less about Tejano music, a style fusing Mexican and European influences via German, Polish and Czech immigrants (thanks Wikipedia). Dubbed “The Queen of Tejano”, Selena dominated Mexican-American music scene, won hearts over the border in Mexico, bagged a Grammy, and seemed poised on the brink of mainstream English-speaking stardom when she was shot and killed by the president of her fan club. Shortly before watching the movie, I looked up a clip from Selena’s final televised concert at the Houston Astrodome, and regardless of whether you care for her music you’d be hard-pressed to argue that, as a pop diva, she had it all: white-hot charisma, the voice, the moves, the works.
Selena is as much of a movie about a tight-knit family as it is about the big dreams of a little girl from Corpus Christi, Texas. The prologue provides a brief snap of the musical career of her father Abraham (Edward James Olmos), whose band The Dinos were too Mexican for the white Americans and too American for Mexican-Americans. By the time Selena is a child, Abraham’s musical ambitions gather dust on a shelf, but he’s re-invigorated when he discovers his daughter’s singing talent. He quickly organises his three kids into a band, with Selena’s sister on drums and her brother on bass, and while initially they kick and protest, they come to love making music. Selena also learns to sing in Spanish, with Abraham pressing the importance of singing from the heart and being true to what she is, a Mexican-American who is forever stuck between two worlds.
With time and tireless touring, Selena and the Dinos develop a huge following, and by the time Jennifer Lopez takes over as the grown-up Selena, she’s an accomplished singer and a radiant performer with boundless, sultry energy. J-Lo of course would go on to have her own successful singing career and she’s effortlessly convincing as someone who could hold 100,000 rabid fans in the palm of her hand. I wish the movie didn’t resort to unnecessary gimmicks like double and triple split screens, but even so the scenes of Selena’s live performances are simply electrifying.
Other than Selena’s rise to fame, most of the drama and tension comes from her relationship with her father, who is clearly loving and supportive, yet also domineering and struggling to see Selena as an independent adult. The sequined bras she wears onstage are a problem, as is her growing fondness for Chris, a former heavy metal guitarist hired to play in the band. Somewhat inevitably, Abraham ends up a more fleshed-out character than Selena herself, partly because of his obvious flaws and partly due to being such a strong driving force behind her career earlier on.
It’s hardly a fault of Lopez’, but there’s just not much sense of an interior life to Selena outside of being a sweet, lovely, talented young woman who’s rebellious in all the usual ways young women are when they want to leave the nest. There’s some lip service paid to the fact that she didn’t have a normal childhood because of her father’s ambitions, but it all feels strictly surface-level. The choice to treat Selena’s death off-camera and without much build-up is perhaps the choice of restraint and reluctance to give her killer too much screen time, but it does make the ending feel rather jarring and rushed. I got emotional regardless because it’s all so desperately sad and senseless, but I still felt that it could have been handled better.
Since the movie was made barely two years after Selena’s death, I feel like I can give it a pass for its urge to celebrate the bright light that got snuffed out way too early, and give fans the Selena they loved, rather than dig too deeply. It does succeed in evoking the magic she possessed even for the uninitiated, as well as giving a warm insight into Mexican-American culture.