Even in death, Selena Quintanilla Perez carries the weight of crossover marketing dreams on her shoulders. Just as the singer’s album Dreaming of You (released posthumously in 1995) was prudently constructed to expand her reputation beyond that of her ardent Tejano fans, so Selena, written and directed by Gregory Nava (My Family), wants to sell the tragic yet uplifting tale of the charismatic Mexican-American singer — who was shot to death by the founder of her fan club in 1995, at the age of 23 — to an audience who may or may not be familiar with her story.
All of this is a lot to lay on a small biographical drama, but let’s put that aside for a moment: The best thing going for Selena is Selena herself, played with verve, heart, and a great deal of grace by the increasingly busy Jennifer Lopez (Money Train, Jack, Blood & Wine). Picking up the story from adolescence, Lopez blooms as a spirited but wholesome young woman who loves her family, loves her singing, loves her fans, and loves her musician husband (Jon Seda from 12 Monkeys) enough to defy her father to marry him. (Dad, a former musician who manages the family act, ”Selena y los Dinos,” comes around.)
In fact, until her shocking death, nothing much stood in the way of Selena’s rise — at least not according to Selena: Even with Nava’s determinedly old-fashioned and sometimes hokey script, she communicates well with her demanding papa (Edward James Olmos, giving off Stand and Deliver vibes), has a close relationship with her mama (Constance Marie, one of the film’s many My Family alumni), etc. This is great for family values but dullsville for filmmakers. (In Prefontaine, another inspirational bio about a dead young star, the hero at least had the dramatic benefit of blowing the Olympics.) So Nava concentrates instead on trying to communicate the colorful Latino-style excitement and adoration that propelled Selena’s performances, and to highlight the music itself.
When this works — when Lopez is shaking her booty in the star’s signature sequined bustiers, doing that thing she did — then Selena becomes a nice enough concert film, not unpleasantly gussied up with corny mood shots (flowers bursting, moon shining, the works) and dialogue to match. When it doesn’t, however — when Selena teeters precariously in the direction of hagiography and buckles under the weight of representing all Latinas to all people — then the real young woman herself is hard to find. And it’s her unfamiliar audience of potential fans who have to ask, que pasa?