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'Selena': A Tale of Music, Moxie and Murder

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 21, 1997

"Selena," a loving, reverential bio-film about the young Tejano singing star Selena Quintanilla Perez, is "A Star Is Born" with several twists.

First, it's a rags-to-riches journey with a Mexican American perspective, something seldom represented in mainstream movies. Second, it's not about a pop star who is self-destructive. Finally, it is a drama with a singular tragedy -- Selena's murder at age 23 by the president of her fan club.

Written and directed by Gregory Nava ("El Norte," "My Family/Mi Familia"), "Selena" arrives in theaters almost exactly two years after the slaying. Hers is a story of small struggles of class and culture, musical challenges, romantic dilemmas and family identity. That it serves up no dark secrets seems due less to the sanitizing machinations of Abraham Quintanilla -- Selena's father as well as the film's executive producer and guardian of the singer's image -- than to the facts of her life.

Quintanilla, who groomed Selena for stardom from age 9 and managed her escalating career, is portrayed with gruff ambition by Edward James Olmos. But the film rightfully belongs to Jennifer Lopez, who captures Selena's luminous beauty, innate sweetness and boundless energy. Though she lip-syncs the vocals to the real Selena's voice, Lopez easily captures the joyful physical energy of a pop diva more indebted to Madonna than to Lydia Mendoza.

"Selena" starts with the singer's last and biggest show (61,000 people in Houston's Astrodome), just a month before her death. The opening medley -- including Gloria Gaynor's disco anthems "I Will Survive" and "The Last Dance" -- represents the unimaginative mainstream pop that paralleled the more vibrant Tejano style that made Selena a star. The irony is that the Texas-born singer didn't speak Spanish and had to learn her Tejano repertoire phonetically.

As "Selena" acknowledges in flashback, Abraham Quintanilla's dreams were rooted in the early '60s failure of his fledgling doo-wop trio, the Dinos. Twenty years later, when he noticed Selena's precocious vocal talent, Quintanilla hitched the family wagon to her star, with sister Suzette on drums, brother Abie on bass and himself as manager/bus driver for Selena y Los Dinos. The early family travails recounted here are Brady Bunch-cute, carried mostly by the sweet performance of Becky Lee Meza as young Selena. Sitting on the roof, she tells her sister, "I'm looking up at the moon and dreaming." You smile even as you cringe at the corniness of it all.

At first, Selena's material is pop- and oldies-oriented, all in English. It's only later that Abraham introduces Spanish-language material to reach a wider Tejano audience. By her mid-teens, Selena was on her way to becoming the first female star in Tejano music, a frothy, danceable meld of Mexican ranchera, polka, country, pop and Colombian cumbia. It wasn't just her singing that made Selena a star, but her crowd-pleasing stage presence, itself a mix of down-home earthiness and flirty sensuality.

The film's many musical scenes can be riveting. But "Selena" is less concert film than family drama, particularly focusing on Selena's struggles with her father after she falls in love with, and eventually marries, her guitarist Chris Perez (heartthrob Jon Seda). Their delicate, halting relationship is charmingly outlined, and there are genuine sparks between Lopez and Seda, who seem giddy and clumsy in ways totally appropriate to their youth.

In the months before her death, Selena had made her first English-language recordings and seemed on the verge of realizing her crossover dreams. It's impossible to predict her true prospects, since death provided Selena immediate mainstream entry ("Dreaming of You," a mostly English album released three months after her murder, sold 3 million copies). Though English was her true language, she did not yet have the vocal presence there that marked her Tejano offerings. What's heard in "Selena" and on its accompanying soundtrack does little to upgrade that impression: 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."

Regardless of her crossover prospects, Selena's accomplishments were considerable. Not only was she the first female star in Tejano music, but her appeal was so broad that she attracted fans in the splintered Spanish-language music world far beyond her original Tex-Mex constituency. 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 dream and yet managed to remain genuine. At its best, "Selena" suggests why so many people reacted with such great heartbreak to her death.

Selena is rated PG.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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