Selena opens with a reenactment of the slain Tejano singer's February 1995 event-style concert at the Houston Astrodome. Bedecked in a sparkling purple jumpsuit, the beloved Texas native (played by Jennifer Lopez) is shown singing a few disco nuggets from her childhood, including "I Will Survive" and "Last Dance." While the tunes certainly provide a high-energy musical overture for the film as performed by the beautiful, vigorous, crowd-pleasing Latina superstar, when they are considered in light of what happened only one month later--her shocking shooting death at the hands of her fan club president--they become imbued with an unmistakably tragic backbeat.
Writer-director Gregory Nava's biopic of Selena Quintanilla Perez is a dollop of old-style Hollywood gloss, an unapologetically positive account of the teen sensation's rise from novelty child star to "Tejano Madonna," able to bridge power pop and cumbias in a single bound. As played by uncanny look-alike Lopez (they share a certain bold voluptuousness and rich, wide-mouthed smile), Selena is an endlessly chirpy and good-natured girl who is fueled not only by the juice of performing but also by the closeness of her family. Of course, a good deal of that familial bonding comes full-throttle from the stubborn if well-meaning Abraham Quintanilla Jr. (a bearish Edward James Olmos), Selena's father, manager, musical guru, and staunchest defender. It is in the portrayal of the bullish Abraham that Selena offers its only patina of tension--from his authoritarian manner to his overprotectiveness--but it's all ultimately rooted in the very safe notion that these are merely innocent crossover dreams being nurtured, looked after, and realized.
Selena kicks off its narrative with a 1961 flashback of a younger Abraham and his doo-wop group, The Dinos, encountering resistance from the Mexican-American audiences of Corpus Christi, Texas, who disdained the idea of their people aping the harmony pop of whites. "We want to dance," a large woman shouts over the din of bottles being thrown. On top of the fact that the Dinos can't even get an audition at a white club because of their brown skin, the stage is set in Selena for the particular hardships facing Mexican-Americans--and really, any multiracial or immigrant citizens--who are seen as too much of one, not enough of the other.
So when we shift forward and find Abraham introducing--really, forcing--his kids, who include Selena's siblings Abie (Jacob Vargas) and Suzette (Jackie Guerra), to the idea of starting a family band, it's "Blue Moon" he has them play. These early scenes, featuring the inescapably darling newcomer Rebecca Lee Meza as the younger Selena, will probably surprise audiences unfamiliar with Selena's background: that she grew up with Spanish as a second language, that her singing of Tejano music was invariably calculated to appeal to certain audiences, and that her initial forays into performing in Mexico were fraught with the worry that her accent would give her away as not being an "authentic" warbler of Spanish-language pop. As the full-grown Lopez enters the picture (lip-synching to the real Selena), the appeal of the singer (aside from her nonthreatening, admittedly light vocal talents) becomes all too obvious: Form-fitting clothes, a rhinestone-studded bustier, a killer smile, and a few dance moves certainly don't hurt the overall package.
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"We don't want to be old-fashioned," Selena complains to her father one night after he first rejects her skin-revealing outfits (of her own design); but Nava's film couldn't be more old-fashioned if it opened with "Once upon a time..." Much has been made, for example, of Nava's insistence on telling the real story behind Selena's marriage to the band's guitarist, Chris Perez (played in the film by Jon Seda). Selena's father, a consultant and executive producer on the film, was apparently skittish about the movie revealing the fact that Selena eloped against his wishes and that it was the beginning of the end of his fierce control over her life and career.
But this isn't a shocking-truth issue, it's a Drama 101 issue--standard intrafamily conflict stuff. And it effortlessly gives Selena both its most disarmingly heartwarming scenes, as the bright-eyed superstar falls for her cuddly longhaired guitarist over pizza and stuffed animals, and its most affecting scenes, as the inevitable blowup with daddy and reconciliation follow. Seda perfectly captures a former metal dude and admitted rebel's romantic meltdown in the face of Selena's spirited charms, and Olmos showcases Abraham's abrasive reaction to their courtship. The sweet-sweet nature of the romance and the genuinely touching making-up moments are at the heart of what appeals to Nava in the Selena story: family ties, stretched and strained but never broken. It's what made his multigenerational soap opera My Family an aw-shucks success, and it is what gives Selena its own rosy glow. From the way mother Marcella (Constance Marie) shows her 10-year-old daughter how to dance to cumbias to the comic klutziness of Abraham as he seemingly trips over everything in sight to the unceasing camaraderie and goodwill of the entire troop while on the road, Nava is seeking a Partridge Family vision of the Quintanillas, and his commitment to the task isn't hard to surrender to.
The movie is still a mild whitewash job, considering the fact that nothing is made of Abraham's taking Selena out of eighth grade for life on the road--a mere mention of completing high school by mail is all we get--or why an unstable character like Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), her embezzler and killer, would be given the reins of the Selena boutiques with a supposedly spotty track record regarding finances. But Selena is still a pleasantly diverting bit of heart-tugging schmaltz, free of anything but misty-eyed optimism and giddy respect for the pop fantasies of record buyers everywhere. While the performance sequences are middling at best--Nava won't be hired by MTV or VH1 anytime soon--the sunniness of the whole enterprise is what sticks. Even the way the death is handled--re-created news footage quickly followed by shots of a vigil and a briskly edited montage featuring the real Selena, all set to her song "Dreaming of You"--carries the air of something too horrible to dwell on for too long. Nava's movie is, after all, about remembering Selena in all her girlish, grinning, dream-spinning cheeriness and devotion to family, and it does what movies ultimately do best: keep that stuff alive for the fans.
Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie. Written and directed by Gregory Nava. Opens Friday.