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'Selena': A Simple Song

By Eric Brace
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1997

When you set out to capture a person’s life in the two-hour confines of a feature film, you fail before you begin. Even when the life being considered was only 23 years long, a fleshed-out portrait is impossible; a rough sketch is the best you can do. Inevitably, in "bio-pics," what an audience sees are the dramatic peaks and valleys of a life, while the day-to-day disappears entirely.

"Selena" is the film biography of the 23-year-old Texas Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla Perez, whose Spanish-language recordings had made her a star before she was shot and killed by a deranged business associate in March 1995. While the Latin community mourned, much of the rest of the world was learning who Selena was, having never heard of her before her murder.

The hagiography of "Selena" (executive produced by Selena’s father) will please her fans, but doesn’t give much insight into the person behind the star. It begins in Texas, where Abraham Quintanilla’s dreams of singing English-language pop are dashed by racist Anglo-Americans and intolerant Mexican Americans. Skip ahead 20 years to 1981. Quintanilla (played by Edward James Olmos in his usual gruff-but-sensitive style) hears his 10-year-old daughter Selena singing and decides that she and her two older siblings should form a band.

Every scene thereafter is a milestone: the first rehearsal of Los Dinos; the band’s first concert; Selena’s first song in Spanish; her first dance steps (as mom shows her the cumbia); her transformation into "A Woman of the People" as she prevents a security guard from taking a little boy from the stage; her first clothing design (a sparkling bustier); her first argument with her father (over the bustier); her first kiss with the lead guitarist who was to become her husband; her first concert in Mexico; the opening of her first clothing store; her 1994 appearance at the Grammys (where she won an award for Best Mexican-American Album for "Selena, Live!").

This shorthand style of storytelling lets us grasp the arc of Selena’s career but leaves no room for nuance, except in the individual performances, some of which are surprisingly deep. As Selena, Jennifer Lopez is superb. She’s dynamic, smart and sexy, and comes off looking like a star. Granted, she’s acting the part of a star, but her charisma is genuine, and she brings much sympathy to the part of a woman who was rushed into maturity by somewhat overbearing parents.

The rest of her family is also solidly portrayed as loving and supportive, though you wonder if they ever fought about the music. You learn parenthetically that her brother was the producer of her music, so you know there were some humdinger battles. But strife -- other than the difficulty in getting Selena’s father to accept her marriage to guitarist Chris Perez (a smooth Jon Seda) -- is ignored, and when Selena triumphantly steps into the Houston Astrodome before a record audience, it seems too good to be true. While it was true in broad outline, it turned out to be too good to last. The business manager of Selena’s clothing stores turned a gun on her boss after being fired for embezzlement, just when music executives were positioning Selena to become "the next Gloria Estefan." Her killer is now serving a life term, and her fans are left with her recordings and this glossy, simplistic, but touching movie.

SELENA (PG) — Contains nothing objectionable.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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