A contemporary fairy tale with an unhappy ending, “Selena” surmounts its connect-the-dots approach to its heroine’s life to create an appealing, energetic look at a too-briefly soaring musical star. To be sure, this sentimental, rose-colored portrait has been carefully shaded to stress the positive and inspirational aspects of the singer’s unique career. But while it will play best to her fans, who are numerous enough to have sent her posthumous crossover album to No. 1 the moment it hit the charts, the milieu and central figure are sufficiently different from those of other musical biopics to hold the interest of the uninitiated. Just how far it can travel theatrically beyond the core ethnic audience is the big question, but soundtrack and eventual video sales will be huge.
Frankly conceived as a celebration of Selena, who was shot to death by a trusted employee and fan club leader two years ago at the age of 23, and exec produced by her father, flavorful film will be questioned and no doubt criticized by some observers for its sanitization of some issues and avoidance of others. But from a general entertainment p.o.v., it succeeds primarily because of the luminous lead performance of Jennifer Lopez, and because the story recounts a singular cultural phenomenon, the first time a female Tex-Mex singer of “Tejano” music broke through the regional ghetto into international prominence.
Presented in flashback from a triumphant late performance at the Houston Astrodome (although clearly not shot there), Gregory Nava’s fast-paced career survey begins by indicating the musical aspiration of Selena’s father Abraham, whose attempt to forge a career as a doo-wop singer in Texas in the early ’60s was met with racist resistance on the part of whites and as a cultural betrayal
by local Latinos.
This scene-setting, along with a funny speech Abraham later gives his daughter about how “Nobody knows how tough it is to be Mexican-American,” deftly sets the context for Selena’s career. From the beginning, Abraham (Edward James Olmos) is seen as an obsessive, sometimes bumbling stage father, relentlessly pushing his three kids to play as a group, in part to realize his own frustrated goals through them but also as a way to keep his family together.
Even as a kid, Selena (played charmingly in the childhood scenes by Rebecca Lee Meza) possessed an exceptional voice, and pic’s first half-hour sketches the kid group’s low-income gigs at a short-lived family restaurant, fairgrounds and the like. When Lopez takes over the role, the 17-year-old Selena infuriates her strict father by doffing her shirt to perform in a sequined bustier. But this is just a sign of things to come when, against his better judgment,
Abraham agrees to hire an arrogantly sexy heavy metal guitarist, Chris Perez (Jon Seda), to sharpen up the band, which has Selena’s brother Abie (Jacob Vargas) on guitar and sister Suzette (Jackie Guerra) on drums. It doesn’t take long for a fire to ignite between the two attractive young performers, which threatens to split up the family and the act until Abraham learns to deal with the inevitable.
Otherwise, the film charts the swift progress of Selena’s career. A beautiful woman with a dazzling smile, fine full voice and a smooth, idiosyncratic dance style, she could charm any audience, and particular attention is paid to the irony of her not speaking Spanish very well and having a resistance to singing in it initially (a disco diva born too late, she loved disco in general and Donna Summer in particular). This shortcoming was seen as a real threat to her acceptance in Mexico, but she rose above it in a rocky but ultimately rousing show for a huge throng in Monterrey.
Pic crescendos with a victorious trip to the Grammys in L.A. and sessions for her intended crossover album, “Dreaming of You.” (During one, she jokes, “I bet everybody’s going to wonder how I learned English so fast.”) Her sideline as a fashion designer was also taking off. But it was all cut tragically short by the shooting in Corpus Christi, an incident that is not even shown, although the aftermath briefly is. As did the Tina Turner biopic “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” film concludes with concert footage of the real Selena, and it’s a tribute to Lopez’s performance that this material in no way undercuts the effectiveness of what has gone before.
Although Nava’s screenplay hits the subject of every scene right on the head and doesn’t ask for much subtlety or subtext, Lopez is wonderful to watch in the dramatic sequences as well as in the numerous musical interludes. Crucially, she is utterly convincing as a star-to-be, a rare golden personality, just as it is believable that she could be attracted to the rebellious guitarist in response to her manipulative and constantly hovering father.
For his part, Olmos deftly conveys numerous aspects of Abraham’s sometimes misguided but ultimately justified hustle. Seda, last — if little — seen in Michael Cimino’s “Sunchaser,” is outstandingly cool and engaging as the man in Selena’s life, and remainder of the cast, notably the family members, have an appealing affability that lends the whole picture a congenial mood.
Shooting style has a rough-and-ready, off-the-cuff feel to it, and fans will be well satisfied by the presence of more than 30 tunes on the busy soundtrack.