Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBB
USA, 1997. Q Productions, Esparza / Katz Productions. Screenplay by Gregory Nava. Cinematography by Edward Lachman. Produced by Moctesuma Esparza, Robert Katz. Music by Dave Grusin. Production Design by Cary White. Costume Design by Elisabetta Beraldo. Film Editing by Nancy Richardson. Golden Globe Awards 1997.
The talented singer who achieved the impossible, becoming a female star in the male-dominated field of Tejano music, had only been dead a year when this film went into production, so the fact that it plays as something of a scrubbed-up hagiography of Selena Quintanilla shouldn’t be all that shocking. The late singer’s father being involved on the production side should also quell any surprise that the majority of the film is about Abraham Quintanilla, his past, his inspiration, his ideas and his responsibility for the success of the one and only Selena (played here by Jennifer Lopez). In his youth, Abe tried to make it in music but found that his fellow Mexican-Americans were hostile to his love of doo-wop sounds, forcing him to drop his dreams and get a steady job with which to support his family. Years later we catch up with him as a suburban father (played with his usual perfect blend of affection and growly simmer by Edward James Olmos) raising three children in Corpus Christi with his wife Marcella (Constance Marie), and one day, while hearing his youngest daughter Selena sing, inspiration strikes again: Abe drops everything sensible and secure in life and turns the whole clan into a family band, putting his son A.B. on guitar, his daughter Suzette on drums and Selena on lead vocals, avoiding the mistakes of his own youth by teaching his children Spanish enough to sing songs that will appeal to their target audience. They’re laughed off the stage in their early gigs, a group of kids singing Tejano music can’t rate next to tough guys on guitars, but by the time she’s a teenager she’s a sensation, tearing up the stage in her sparkly bustiers (not bras, dad) and singing the hits that the audience cannot get enough of. Success is meteoric at this point, she wins a Grammy and is courted by big labels, while privately she causes strife with her father by falling in love with bad boy guitarist Chris Perez (Jon Seda) despite the fact that Abe doesn’t approve. Her fate is sealed when her side-hustle project of being a fashion designer results in the successful opening of a clothing store that leaves all business management up to friend and colleague Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), the woman who would end up murdering Selena right at the time that she was soon to become an international superstar. Not much time is spent on the tragic outcome of the tale, likely in an effort to keep the focus concentrated on celebrating the brightness that this woman brought to her loved ones and her fans instead of the woman who destroyed it all, which is fine except that it further emphasizes the thematic void that this film exists in. Lopez is perfectly cast in the lead, styled to a very close resemblance with Selena and bursting with her youthful, vibrant energy, not to mention skillfully lip-synching to her music on stage, but this is a pure biography re-enactment that is never really about anything (generational conflict, maybe, or the pitfalls of fame?) Director Gregory Nava doesn’t have material as good as El Norte or even Mi Familia to work with on this one but he keeps everything moving forward, so that while it is a slim and suspiciously very kid-friendly film, it at least is never boring. What work best are the fantastic recreations of Selena’s live performances, between Lopez’s charisma as a performer (before she had herself taken over as a pop star) and the expert cinematography and sound design the concert scenes all feel real and really help you understand the pulse-pounding vibe that the subject created when she took to the concert stage.