With biopics, it’s usually a good idea to wait at least a few years before covering a historic event through film, not only because you risk not having all the facts (there might be aftershocks to the story you’re telling), but also because hindsight allows you to portray your subject matter more clearly.
1997’s “Selena,” which portrays the life of Tejano music star Selena Quintanilla-Pérez, was released only two years after the famous singer’s death, and has a complicated legacy of not only being the film that launched Jennifer Lopez’s acting career, but also of presenting a sanitized version of the musician.
Film critic Walter Addiego of the San Francisco Examiner, who reviewed the film when it came out, wrote:
“There are many enjoyable moments (and some real groaners); its subject is quite likeable, and you can see why her fans were desolated at her death. You can’t help cheering for Selena, but the good feeling is diminished by the sense that her story’s been simplified and sanitized.”
That pretty much sums up what is great and terrible about this film. It doesn’t work as a biopic, as it clearly has the glaze of the 90s caked over its eyes, and it clearly is trying to market itself to “Selena”‘s fans (Q-Productions, the company Selena’s father founded that produced her music, also serves as the production company of this film). But it also works as a corny 90s film, and there are several good performances in this that work.
Lopez is great as Selena, albeit there isn’t much to her character beyond a naive need to produce music and to pursue a romantic relationship with her band’s guitarist Chris Pérez (Jon Seda). Despite being in her 20s, her relationship with Pérez is portrayed like a 90s high school crush, and I think this was intentional in order to appeal to a younger audience.
Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr. (Edward James Olmos and Panchito Gómez as his younger self), is also portrayed in a positive light, although the film does touch on the fact that his own failed attempt at having a music career led to him pushing music on Selena and her siblings to the point where it led the family to financial ruin, but he is validated as Selena’s music career takes off. He also goes so far as to fire Pérez in the film when he finds out he and Selena are having a budding romance, but he begrudgingly gives up when they decide to get married behind his back. I am almost certain that Netflix’s upcoming series on Selena will not portray Abraham in this same positive light, as it’s hard to see his actions in relation to pushing music onto his children and micromanaging his family to realize his dream as anything more than selfish and unhealthy.
“Selena” is a feel good 90s movie that celebrates the life of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez through Jennifer Lopez, and while it in no way poses to be a factually accurate portrayal of who she was as a person, it seems to capture the spirit of who Selena was to her fans at that time. “Selena” is a 90s interpretation of a 90s music icon, and it is quite an enjoyable film, even if I admit the last ten minutes, which cover her death in a very rushed manner, aren’t great.
In real life, Selena was killed by Yolanda Saldívar (Lupe Ontiveros), the president of her fan club who became the manager of her clothing boutique, who was embezzling money meant for Selena, and the film addresses this very quickly at the end. Ontiveros does a fine job with what she had to work with, which understandably probably wasn’t much, given this film came out roughly two years after her murder and subsequent sentencing. “Selena” handles the titular singer’s death through a chaotic montage which I enjoyed aspects of, but was terribly confused as to the who, what, and whys of beyond the fact that Abraham found out she was embezzling funds, and asked her to produce key documents she could not give him, which led her to draw a gun on Selena.
Saldívar’s role in Selena’s life is a fascinating one that has been the subject of many true crime shows, and is not necessarily one that can be condensed into 10 minutes of frantic footage. She’s someone who would have failed a background check had Abraham done one on her before allowing her to start Selena’s fan club, based on her history of stealing money from a previous employer, yet she was able to sneak her way into prominent roles in the singer’s life, through her persistence. By all accounts, she seemed like someone who shouldn’t have been allowed within ten feet of the singer, let alone given important positions of power, and unfortunately it was Abraham who let her into Selena’s inner circle. It’s interesting and tragic how he has this dual role of not only building her career and believing in her, but also of letting her killer into her life.
I thoroughly enjoyed “Selena,” but fully acknowledge that it is not a perfect film. Outside of the 90s framing and sanitizing of the singer’s life, this film has some continuity and pacing issues, mostly because the film jump-cuts from when Selena started playing at fairs as a child, to when she was a professional musician, with recorded music on the radio, about to win a Grammy, with very little explanation. Most biopics like this focus on the grind of progressing from an amateur to professional, emphasizing not only the artist’s first big break, but also their crowning achievement, but this film has no such progression. It’s more focused on using the characters in the film to portray small moments with a vibe similar to what you’d see in a sitcom at the time than focusing purely on Selena’s singing career, though key moments in her career are highlighted, albeit they serve as a backdrop for the film’s characters.
I look forward to Netflix’s upcoming “Selena” series, which has the benefit of having 25 years of retrospect, her influence on modern music, the full aftermath of her death, and the impartiality “Selena” 1997 couldn’t have had. “Selena” 1997 is good for what it is, but it doesn’t show the full picture of the singer’s life and as such, leaves plenty of room for other works to fill in the gaps.
“Selena” 1997 gets a 7/10