Selena Forever

The Selena Trial

The Houston Chronicles Files

Life is the focus of happy `Selena'


Copyright 1997 Houston Chronicle

The principle that drives Selena is very sensible: Although what prompted the film to be made is the very essence of tragedy, the horror has most affected those who survive her.

The point of writer-director Gregory Nava's film is that the Corpus Christi Tejano star known as Selena was no Billie Holiday.

Selena planted none of the tragedy's seeds and had nothing to do with flicking the switch that turned off her life. The closest this cheerful young woman came to self-destructive behavior was scarfing Doritos and medium pizzas, which, as anyone who ever saw her can attest, did not even cause her to gain a pound.

The performer's 1995 shooting death, at the hands of an unbalanced employee, was an aberration, as Nava sees it, so he properly and effectively devotes less than 10 minutes of more than two hours' worth of screen time to her death. The rest is a celebration of Selena's life, her achievements and her family.

The result is not a sad film but a happy one, coming across like a big party for her, with lots of smiles and even more music. The dominant images that we take away from the theater are the twin 5,000-watt smiles of the very talented actresses who play her as a child and as the 23-year-old she was when she died.

Nava starts the film with the young woman Selena (Jennifer Perez) knockin' 'em dead at the 1995 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. Then he flashes back to 1961 to show how it all began.

That's when Selena's Mexican-American father, Abraham, had to pack in his own musical career. His affinity for doo-wop kept him out of the whites-only clubs and got beer bottles thrown at him in Mexican-American places whose patrons wanted polkas.

As the movie tells the story, Abraham (Edward James Olmos) has settled into a life at a Lake Jackson refinery when he discovers that his 9-year-old daughter, Selena (the entrancing Rebecca Lee Meza), has serious pipes. Out come Abraham's old dreams, which he now invests in his children. He organizes a band, with Selena at the front.

Being kids, the kids would rather be outside playing with other kids. And if they're going to make music, at least let it be more contemporary than the Blue Moon-era stuff that Abraham makes them do.

Selena and her siblings go nowhere playing for gringos, so Abraham decides to retool the act for the Tejano audience. But not only would little Selena prefer to be Donna Summer when she grows up; she also doesn't speak Spanish. This superstar-to-be of a Spanish-language musical form has to learn her first lyrics by rote.

The filmmakers return to this irony often. Mexican-Americans, Abraham notes, are not American enough for gringos and not Mexican enough for Mexicans. Long after Selena has hit it big in South Texas, Abraham hesitates when it comes to taking his daughter into the Mexican market that clamors for her because he fears her Spanish is too poor.

Nava's previous films were about families (Mi Familia, for instance), so it is not surprising that Selena seems to be much more about the Quintanillas than it is about the girl who fronted the family band.

The Quintanillas, as shown up there on the screen, are made stronger by their success. The only intra-family friction develops when Selena, just 20, falls in love with handsome Chris Perez (Jon Seda), who has joined the troupe as guitarist.

Papa Abraham isn't ready to give up his little girl, and certainly not to a musician, so Selena and Chris elope.

But Selena, her new husband waiting outside in the car, has hardly taken a step inside the house to face the music and her dad is telling her that she was exactly right to have done what she did.

Nava's writing and direction are not without cliché. Those looking for reportorial rigor in the telling of this tale might do well to wait for a biographer working four or five years down the road without a Quintanilla looking over each shoulder. Abraham Quintanilla is this film's executive producer.

The Selena you'll see on the screen is a modest, sweet-tempered young woman who, at the time she died, was dreaming still-girlish dreams of bigger stardom and having babies.

It would be churlish, stingy and impractical to ask the movie to be anything other than what it is: another object for Selena's passionate fans to press into the scrapbooks that otherwise would be forever only half-full.



Starring: Jennifer Lopez

and Edward James Olmos

Opening: Today at area theaters