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MRQE Top Critic

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After watching Selena it’s hard not to like the “Tejano” singer.

I went to the movie knowing very little about Selena’s music. I even anticipated that I might not like it very well, because there are types of Tex-Mex music that I can’t stand (e.g., norteño music, the Mexican version of polka). I was relieved that Selena didn’t do polka, but I still don’t think I’d go buy her albums. Her music just doesn’t appeal to me.

Luckily, the movie doesn’t require that you love — or even like — Selena’s music. The movie focuses enough on the characters and the story that even non-fans can enjoy it. I did.

Selena was a pop music singer. She rose to fame singing Tex-Mex songs in Spanish and she was just making progress as a crossover singer — crossing over to mainstream pop in English — when she was gunned down at age 23, ironically, by the president of her fan club.

Selena tells the story both of Selena (Jennifer Lopez) and of her father/manager Abraham (Edward James Olmos). The movie opens with Selena’s last big concert in the Houston Astrodome. Her opening number is a medley starting with “I Will Survive,” a bit of heavy-handed irony that could have been overplayed, but which ends up working rather well.

The movie then flashes back to her father’s early stint in music, before Selena was born. Abraham’s doo-wop group is pretty good, but can’t get a gig anywhere because racist Anglos won’t hire a group of Mexicans and Mexicans don’t want to listen to doo-wop. This introduces the movie’s theme of the dual expectations Mexican-Americans face.

The movie jumps forward several years, to when Selena is just 9. Abraham discovers that music runs in the Quintanilla family like Mexican blood. Little Selena proves to have the same love of, and more talent for, music than he has. Her voice and interest in music inspire him to buy a vanload of instruments for his whole family. After a rocky start, they begin to sound pretty good together. They stick together through it all and move on to the big time.

Though the subject herself isn’t that interesting to me, I like the story and the characters in Selena.

Selena is a rags-to-riches story, but it shuns the extremes common to movies of this sort. Selena was not dirt-poor as a child. Her father was difficult at times, but he was not portrayed as an inhuman monster. He pushed the kids to practice, but he didn’t crack the whip. He disapproved of Selena’s boyfriend, but he knew when he was overreacting and was able to apologize. There were obstacles and conflicts, but none of them were blown out of proportion.

Also, though Selena is murdered in the end, the movie manages to be a triumphal story and not a tragedy. Her death is tragic, but the tone of the movie is gracious and joyful, not bitter and sad. Come to think of it, that’s probably the better way to be remembered. It is more generous, more healthful, to celebrate a person’s life than to brood over their death.

The characters in Selena are well developed and likeable. Abraham, as I mentioned, is not presented as an ogre. He is stern, but he loves his kids as most fathers do, and his family always comes first.

Jon Seda plays Chris, Selena’s boyfriend, guitarist, and husband with quiet, shy, downcast eyes in spite of his heavy metal tendencies. When the time comes for him to say “I love you,” it’s not just because the script calls for it; it’s because Chris and Selena have become best friends.

Lopez shines as Selena who is always cheerful and seems to have a true love for life. When a boy climbs on stage and starts dancing with her, she stops the security guard from removing him. Soon she is dancing with a stageful of smiling children. When she sticks up for Chris, it is not an act of defiance to her father, it is truly defense of her best friend.

The movie has its shortcomings. Nava and editor Nancy Richardson introduced a motif of the moon that doesn’t play well. A split-screen effect is used occasionally that doesn’t play well and is distracting. Worst of all, the ending is some sort of jump to reality; real-life mourners are intercut with footage of the real-life Selena. This sequence brought to mind the coda of Schindler’s List and the comparison left a bad taste in my mouth.

Still, the movie is worth seeing, even if you don’t like the music. It’s a shame that the movie came out only two years after Selena’s death because it seems like the movie is carefully targeted at just her fans and mourners. I wonder if a greater distance might have made her story more universal and given this fine movie a broader audience.