Friday Film Focus: Selena

Selena brings heart and soul to the life story of a little girl from Corpus Christi, Texas.  Selena had big dreams, and was lucky enough to live out most of them before her life was cut short.  Until she was tragically shot dead, Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla was poised to become the first female singer to cross over from Spanish to English markets. This rags to riches journey with a Mexican-American perspective was something seldom represented in mainstream media at the time of its release. Written and directed by Gregory Nava, here is a story of small struggles of class, culture, musical challenges, forbidden romance, and female identity.

By the time Selena (played by Jennifer Lopez in her first film role) had passed away, she had conquered the Spanish music charts. She had No. 1 hits, won a Grammy, and dominated Mexican-American pop music. Selena starts with the singer’s last and biggest show to date — playing for a crowd of 61,000 people in the Houston Astrodome. It was a month before her death. As the film acknowledges in flashback, her father Abraham’s dreams were rooted in the early ’60s failure of his doo-wop trio, The Dinos. Like his daughter, he found himself caught between two worlds: Anglo clubs that didn’t want Chicano bands, and Mexican clubs who wanted only Spanish dance music.

Twenty years later when noticing Selena’s vocal talent, he decides to form a band — much to his wife Marcella’s (Constance Marie) dismay. From the very beginning, “Selena  y Los Dinos:” was a family musical act. Guided by father Abraham (Edward James Olmos), the band included Selena’s sister Susie (Jackie Guerra) on drums, and her brother Abie (Jacob Vargas) on guitar. They toured all over Texas, playing country fairs and school dances. Abraham even opened his own restaurant just so he could book his kids as the entertainment. It was slow going at first. When Abraham insisted Selena start singing in Spanish, the young teen rebelled: “I don’t want to learn to sing in Spanish! I don’t even like Spanish music! I like Donna Summer.”

Abraham informs her she must sing from the inside. She was Mexican-American — caught between two worlds. By her mid-teens, Selena was on her way to becoming the first female star in Tejano music. The genre could be described as a danceable meld of Mexican polka, country, pop, and Columbian cumbia. It wasn’t her singing alone that made Selena a star. Rather, it was her down-to-earth personality and crowd-pleasing stage presence. As Selena gets older, she becomes very close to Susie and Abie, and finds a confidant in her mother. When a talented young guitarist named Chris Perez (Jon Seda) joins the band, she falls in love with him. “This stops right now!” Abraham thunders, firing the poor guy. But it’s true love, well-acted and written.

After Chris and Selena elope, the family accepts him. The scene where Selena brings her husband home for the first time is one of the film’s most touching. The biographical scenes are inter-cut with a lot of music. Selena’s original recordings are used, with Lopez lip-synching and doing an incredible job of being Selena onstage. She has the star presence to look convincing in front of 100,000 fans in Monterrey, Mexico. When Lopez and Selena are left alone to simply sing and perform, the results are electrifying. The film’s most vibrant, musical moments are when Selena is singing such Tejano hits as “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom,” “Como La Flor,” and “Baila Esta Cumbia.”

Selena is smart in not letting the singer’s death dominate most of the story of her life. We do meet her killer Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros) — almost obliquely — when she’s introduced as the manager of Selena’s new boutique. Yolanda is also the former president of her fan club. Soon however, there’s a discrepancy over missing money…and then ultimately the shooting. The film deals with the shooting only through its aftermath.

Selena succeeds through the performances of Lopez, who invokes the magic of this sweet and talented young woman. Olmos is particularly powerful as her ambitious father. He conveys both the strength of determination as well as the underside to ambition. Nava’s film is insightful in portraying Mexican-American culture as a rich resource without any use of stereotypes. Regardless of her crossover projects, Selena’s accomplishments were considerable. Music was a major part of that, but so was Selena’s role model image as a self-confident beauty who worked hard to achieve her dreams. All the while, she still managed to remain genuine.

As a young Latina myself (who also grew up in Corpus Christi), Selena provided the soundtrack to my childhood. But looking back at it now, I realize she was more than her music. It was her life — the way she navigated our culture and inspired us to dream big — that made her truly iconic and unforgettable.

Image Source: Remezcla