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
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
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
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.
and Edward James Olmos
at area theaters