Today is Selena Day in Texas. For those who aren’t familiar with Selena Quintanilla-Perez, she was shot on March 31, 1995 by her fan club president, Yolanda Saldivar and died soon after. I had never heard of her before her murder, probably because she had been a niche artist on the verge of going mainstream at the time. All of a sudden, “I Could Fall In Love” and “Dreaming of You” were on the radio constantly in every state. I was intrigued, so I started hunting up her music and researching her life.
In southern Texas, Selena is someone a lot of people grew up listening to, and she is still very well-loved even twenty-five years on. It’s not hard to see why–Selena was a captivating performer and a lot of fun. Although she wore bustiers, she never tried to be overtly sexy and seemed more like everyone’s cool sister. Her husky soprano had an elastic range, and she did it all without AutoTune, thank you very much. Selena’s music mixed rock, hip-hop, traditional Tejano, and pop, which brought Tejano to a whole new level (A really good example is “Bidi Bidi Bom Bom“).
Naturally, Selena’s family decided to produce a film about her life, simply titled Selena and released in 1997. The Quintanilla family chose to focus on Selena’s life and not go into too much detail about her death. In some ways, it’s a typical biopic. In other ways, it’s not. For one thing, it’s a pretty straight retelling, without a lot of major changes to the basic facts. It doesn’t get all that deep, but it at least gives a basic outline. And there’s a lot of music.
The movie opens with Selena (played as a teen and an adult by Jennifer Lopez) about to begin her last concert at the Houston Astrodome in front of thousands of screaming fans. It’s the venue’s biggest crowd ever. Girls are wearing Selena’s clothing designs. Everyone’s happy and waving to Selena, who waves back, beaming. Then she launches into “I Will Survive,” and the audience goes nuts. Selena has hit a new high point in her career and has nowhere to go but up.
Then the film goes back to 1961 and shows her dad, Abraham (Edward James Olmos) trying and failing to be a doo wop singer in a trio called Los Dinos. He fails because white people won’t accept a Mexican American singing doo wop, and the Mexican American crowds want to hear music that reflects their heritage. Abraham and his group soldier on, but they don’t really fit in anywhere.
The film jumps forward to the seventies, and Abraham is working at Dow Chemical in Lake Jackson. He still dreams about being a musician, playing guitar and singing in his spare time. Once he finds out Selena (played as a child by Rebecca Lee Meza) can sing, he conscripts she and her brother, Abie (Rafael Tomayo) and sister, Suzette (Victoria Elena Flores) to form a band, also called Los Dinos. Selena sings, Abie plays bass, and, much to her chagrin, Suzette plays the drums.
Abraham’s wife, Marcella (Constance Marie) is skeptical because she was never a fan of Abraham’s music career. Her priority is that the kids have a good life with steady money and parents who are there, as opposed to Abraham being on the road all the time. Abraham assures her the new band is just a hobby, no big deal.
Still, Abraham is a very driven fellow who wants his kids to be excellent musicians. He’s not Joe Jackson, not by a long shot, but he does have to practically pay his kids to practice. It doesn’t help that Abraham starts them out on doo wop, which they hate. Recalling his earlier failure, he tries writing some songs in Spanish even though Selena doesn’t speak the language.
In the midst of all this, the family opens a restaurant called Papagayo’s, where the band provides the entertainment at dinner. At first they have a packed floor every night, but then all of a sudden the business tanks and the Quintanillas have to move to Corpus Christi to live with Uncle Hector. Abraham tries in earnest to get Los Dinos playing at fairs, where they draw tiny crowds.
The Quintanilla kids may have resisted being a band at first, but Selena dreams of being a professional singer and Abie starts writing his own music. The family also hears cumbia on a radio and Marcella teaches Selena a dance she and Abraham did when they were young. From there, things start to take off. The kids charm people with their new sound, which the crowds happily dance to.
Then the film cuts to 1989, when Selena would have been eighteen. She’s getting to be a big star with bigger venues at fairs and enthusiastic crowds. Unfortunately, though, Selena is routinely paid less than male Tejano singers because at the time the genre is traditionally dominated by men.
However, Selena Y Los Dinos have some tricks up their sleeves, unbeknownst to Abraham. During a performance of “Baila Esta Cumbia,” Selena pulls off her jean jacket to reveal a bustier. The crowd loves it. Abraham has a conniption. He doesn’t want men looking at Selena like that. Selena talks him down later, and Abraham has to admit that whether he likes it or not, Selena is growing up.
The band needs a new guitarist, and Abie brings in Chris Perez (Jon Seda). Abraham is skeptical because Chris is a metalhead and looks it. Abie vouches for him, and Chris is in as long as he cuts his hair and keeps his nose clean. Suzette gets out the clippers, and soon Chris has a rockin’ new ‘do.
Selena and Chris become fast friends, bonding over pizza. Chris is a rebel whose family wanted him to be a doctor or some other white collar job, but he wanted to be a musician. He actually likes to practice. It doesn’t take long for their relationship to develop into something else, which Selena and Chris try to keep quiet because they know Abraham won’t take it well.
Around this time, Selena has her first number one hit, “Como La Flor,” and is now in higher demand. The tour heads to Monterrey, Mexico, where Selena will meet the Mexican press. There’s a lot riding on this because Abraham is worried that the Mexicans won’t accept them because they’re American. Their Mexican host is worried because Selena doesn’t speak Spanish well and the Mexican press is notoriously ruthless.
Selena’s got an idea. She breezily strides into her first press conference, where she goes around giving all the reporters greetings and kisses. By the time the presser opens, she has them eating out of her hand. Her concert is a huge hit as well, although the crowd is so enthusiastic they press against the stage. Selena sings a gentle version of “Como La Flor” to calm everyone down, and the trip is a success.
Life on the road gets tense when Abraham finds out about Selena and Chris’s relationship–he thinks Selena is too young to get married and that she’ll ruin her career. Over Selena’s protests, he kicks Chris out of the band. Selena and Chris keep seeing each other on the sly, though, and one day they elope. Abraham shocks Selena when he tells her it’s a weight off his mind.
Things start moving very fast. Selena opens a boutique, she wins a Grammy, and she begins work on a crossover album. She and Chris talk about starting a family. Nothing seems to stand in Selena’s way.
Well, almost nothing. Yolanda Saldivar, Selena’s fan club president, embezzles money from the family after working her way into Selena’s confidence. Those who are familiar with Selena’s story know what happens next, but the film doesn’t go into much detail about this part of Selena’s life.
I think this was a good decision on the filmmakers’ part. Selena’s involvement with Yolanda Saldivar got more and more messy as time went on–Saldivar was famously controlling. A fashion designer Selena worked with, Martin Gomez, quit because Saldivar made him very uneasy. He remembered going to Saldivar’s house and seeing Selena pictures everywhere. It was creepy. Including all of this would have been a depressing ending to a fun, tuneful movie, plus it might have fed into some bizarre and unsubstantiated rumors certain journalists are trying to push.
And there’s plenty of good stuff to focus on. Jennifer Lopez is absolutely suited to her role, and the cast seem to be enjoying each other. Lopez’s own formidable stage presence helps her portray Selena’s fluid style. The screen does break into these Woodstock-esque triple images sometimes, which feel unnecessary, but at least they don’t overdo it. And it makes Selena seem a little too perfect.
Unlike the typical biopic, which often has the protagonist facing opposition from somewhere, Selena receives plenty of support from her family and her fans. Her one obstacle is the traditional all-guys club that was Tejano music. The movie shows how hard she and her family work to gain a foothold in the music industry while coming to terms with their heritage as Mexican Americans.
Also unlike other biopics, Selena doesn’t do drugs or abuse alcohol, she doesn’t cheat on Chris, and she doesn’t hit bottom and have to climb back out. Selena’s star keeps rising, snuffed out only when she’s murdered. There’s no triumphant victory scene that goes to a freeze frame and there are no lines of text summing up the subject’s later years. The movie ends with mournful fans at candlelight vigils and footage of the real Selena performing. It’s a melancholy evocation of a life cut short and potential forever lost.
Selena may not be a movie for everyone, but for me it was a peek into a musical genre I wasn’t familiar with and I enjoyed it very much. Selena was an amazing performer and, as the cliche goes, gone way too soon.
My entry for the Vincent Price Blogathon is coming on Sunday. Thanks for reading, everyone…
Selena is available on DVD from Amazon.