Director Gregory Nava’s biopic of the titular Tejano songstress was released in 1997; just around the time millennials were hitting double digits. So, like most nineties kids’ favorite things, Selena is having another moment now that we’ve grown up. Jennifer Lopez, the then-unknown actress tapped to play Selena Quintanilla in the film, performed a tribute to her at last year’s Latin Billboard awards. BuzzFeed lists abound with “things you didn’t know about the making of Selena!” MAC Cosmetics has even announced the release of a Selena-inspired makeup line this fall. It’s tempting to rewatch something you obsessed about as a kid only to be deeply disappointed, but I’m happy to report that Selena holds up amazingly well. It is arguably the standard to which all other biopics should be compared.
That’s not to say it’s without any issues and we’ll get those out of the way first. Selena was released almost exactly two years after the singer’s tragic death in 1995. The loss was so deeply felt among her fans and the Hispanic community in general that unauthorized screenplays about her life began making the rounds almost immediately. So, the Quintanilla family approached Nava to make an inevitable Selena movie…their way. A “preemptive strike” as Nava explains it. The quick announcement led some fans to wonder if the family might be cashing in on tragedy, but it’s clear this film was made with a huge amount of love and sensitivity. So much so that it tends to border on over-sentimentality. Selena herself is depicted with almost no character flaws, full of youth and beauty and talent. This is understandable since the film was released primarily for those still grieving her less than two years later.
But even under so much pressure from her family and fans, Nava (who also wrote the screenplay) truly achieved something amazing with Selena. It’s an epic tale encompassing more than a decade of the Quintanillas’ life together as a family band on the road, chasing success. This is a film about a rising star, of course, but it’s also about a father and his daughter. A young couple fighting to be together. The mortal dangers of fame. And, perhaps Selena’s most important sub-plot: the struggles of being Mexican-American and never feeling fully accepted on either side of the border. It’s a lot of story packed into two hours and eight minutes! But time is spent economically on each heavy topic with plenty of quiet moments, humor and music sprinkled throughout. It’s moving as opposed to overwhelming, and our focus never strays too far from the ill-fated heroine.
Attention to detail is obvious in costuming and production design. This is essential since the real-life events being recreated were still fresh in the memory of Selena’s guaranteed ticket-buyers in 1997. But it’s also helpful for those of us who’d never even heard of this Grammy winner before her death made worldwide news. The famous Astrodome scene is a picture-perfect match to the real thing, as are so many others. It took not only a lot of care, but a lot of funding to construct and shoot these concerts so gorgeously. Known for her distinct fashion sense and burgundy-lipped stage persona, Selena finds an eerie doppleganger in Jennifer Lopez with the help of a seriously talented makeup team.
Though other strong actresses and Latina unknowns made it to the final round of casting, some bearing incredible physical resemblances to the singer, Lopez is an absolutely perfect choice. She is charming to a fault with an infectious laugh and powerhouse stage presence. A talented singer and dancer in her own right, the choice was made to have her lip-sync to Quintanilla’s incredible vocals to keep the fans happy. Though this seems easier in theory, Lopez puts an enormous amount of effort into making sure the lip-syncing is fully inhabited and believable. In fact, many who do not know Selena’s music may just assume Lopez is singing. Their vocal qualities are similar enough to push the illusion right over the top.
She leads a remarkable cast including Edward James Olmos as Abraham Quintanilla: the imposing patriarch of the family. His portrayal of a father who desperately wants his children to be successful while simultaneously wanting to hide them from a scary world is heartbreaking, especially knowing what’s in the cards for his youngest daughter. Constance Marie, while perhaps a bit too young and beautiful to play Selena’s mother, Marcela, does a wonderful job with everything the script throws at her. Jackie Guerra and Jacob Vargas are utterly lovable as the other Quintanilla kids, playing drums and bass respectively. Jon Seda is another standout as Chris Perez: the prodigy guitarist hired by Abraham who eventually steals Selena’s heart in secret. So subtle and genuine is his performance that it sometimes feels like the casting director convinced the real Chris Perez to shyly play himself. In fact, Perez’s hands do make a cameo in order to shred one massive solo for Chris’ audition scene. These skilled actors are in wonderful hands with Nava who appears to have encouraged a lot of amazing improv throughout. He also orchestrated quite a bit of bonding amidst his cast and their real-life counterpart, which shows.
If you’re ready to blow through a whole box of tissues and think you can handle some cheesy 90’s nostalgia, give Selena another look. In the years since you first caught it rerunning on television, you’ve grown wiser. There might just be more than great music and rhinestone bustiers in it for you this time around.