Directed by Gregory Nava. Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Jacob Vargas, Lupe Ontiveros, Jackie Guerra. (1997, PG, 127 min.)
REVIEWED By Russell Smith, Fri., March 28, 1997
Movies get made for all kinds of reasons, many having little or nothing to do with art. Selena, for example, falls into the specialized niche of Validator Films -- movies primarily designed to help audiences re-experience crucial life events (often retrofitted with gauzy mythical trappings), thereby reassuring themselves that everything was truly as vivid and meaningful as they remember. Those impulses seem unavoidable in the case of Selena Quintanilla Perez, the barrier-crashing Tejano singer who was murdered two years ago at the age of 23. The sweetness and buoyancy of her eclectic dance-pop songs really did connect with fans at an instinctive level that transcended the simplicity of their words and music. Something in our nature demands a tribute, and that's exactly what this family-approved project (father Abraham Quintanilla is listed as an executive producer) is from the get-go. Director Nava (Mi Familia, El Norte) was obviously chosen for his richly humane sensibilities and rare talent for establishing a sense of time and place. The scenes of the star's upbringing in Corpus Christi -- Selena's first public gig was in her dad's Mexican restaurant -- have a convincing feel of home-movie tenderness and intimacy. And the speeches that Abraham (Olmos) makes to his kids about the unique bicultural pressures faced by Mexican-Americans are both thought-provoking and useful in understanding the way he managed his daughter's crossover career. Unfortunately, for all his large soul and exquisite mastery of image, Nava is also one of the worst writers to ever accrue more than two major-movie screenwriting credits. His chronology of Selena's career triumphs, romance with her band's bad-boy guitarist, and development into an icon of Latino pride seems to contain (even revel in) every grizzled star-is-born cliché known to Hollywood. The insidious Schmaltz Rays emanating from lines like “Sometimes up on stage it's like I can feel the dreams of all my fans, and they're just the same as mine!” almost -- but not quite -- spoil the effect of Lopez's masterful performance and her vibrant recreation of Selena's onstage magic. So my question to Nava and all others responsible for Selena's blatantly hagiographic character, is: Why bother? Why create a film biography so generic that it serves only to trivialize its subject and posthumously extend the celebrity-packaging process? Maybe a candle, a photograph, and a headful of real, unburnished memories were all that Selena's fans really needed.