Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Selena (1997)


Selena is the true story of a talented singer who was murdered in her prime, therefore I can't will temporarily do away my usual joke-cracking. I'm no Howard Stern (who callously criticized Selena and her fans soon after her death). I will, however, offer a fair-minded review of the film's quality, as well as some philosophical musing on the nature of a biopic.

What Happens:

In four chunks, the film tells the story of Selena Quintinalla (played by the then up-and-coming Jennifer Lopez). Starting with her apex, a 1995 capacity show at the Houston Astrodome, one month before her death. That concert attracted the largest crowd in the park's history (65,000 people, though the film claims 100,000).

From there the film goes back all the way to 1961 to detail the trials and tribulations of Los Dinos, a Mexican-American doo-wop group led by Selena's father, Abraham Quintinalla. A couple of short scenes illustrate the pitfalls of being bi-cultural. A racist white club owner doesn't want them because they're Mexican, but when they do a gig at a Hispanic bar, they get booed off the stage for doing American-style music. Obviously, Los Dinos never got anywhere.

Jump ahead 20 years. It's 1981 and Abraham is married with three children. He works at a refinery in Lake Jackson, Texas and earns a nice living. However, when his 10 year-old daughter Selena (Rebecca Lee Meza) shows some vocal talent, his old dreams resurface, and he decides to start a family band. He buys some old amps and microphones, a bass guitar, and drums and forces the kids to play them (putting him in the same category as Earl Woods, Richard Williams, and Joe Simpson).

Despite setbacks, Abraham's restless ambition drives the group (called Selena and the Dinos) to practice and perform, while at the same time costing the family the financial stability they once had. Remembering his troubles trying to make it as a Mexican singer doing American oldies, he encourages Selena to start singing in Spanish (even though she doesn't know the language and has spoken English her whole life).

After a lackluster gig at a county fair, Abraham chides his kids for not playing well enough, then wonders if Latino listeners will ever accept a female Tejano singer. Son A.B. says they need better material (he would later end up writing the group's songs). In an oceanside family talk, Abraham promises the kids that they can make it if they really want to. Then, in a nice little scene, Selena's mother Marcela (Constance Marie) teaches her to dance the cumbia, a Colombian rhythym and dance style. This will be important later.

The film then jumps to 1989. Selena and the Dinos have persevered and are making a serious go of it. Money isn't great. They have no road crew and Abraham drives the tour bus, but the crowds are loving the group, who have found their sound, a Spanish language combination of cumbia (see, I told you it would be important) and Tejano styles. Selena loves being on stage, and even designs her own costumes.

As her career continues to blossom, so does a relationship with newly-hired guitarist Chris Perez (Jon Seda). Abraham disapproves of Chris and thinks the romance will kill Selena's chances at stardom. He even goes so far as to threaten to disband the group (which seems like kind of self-defeating logic, doesn't it?) Much of this part of the film alternates between depicting the growing success of the group (number one songs, a ridiculously large concert in Mexico, a Grammy nomination and win, etc.) and the trials of the two lovers. First, Abraham throws Chris out of the group, but when the couple continue to see each other secretly, finally deciding to elope, Abraham realizes his daughter has found true love.

As Selena opens her own boutique, featuring clothes and accessories of her own design, she also begins recording an English-language crossover album. She also talks with Chris about eventually settling down, owning a farm and starting a family. At the same time, trouble is brewing. Selena's business manager, friend, and fan club president Yolanda Saldivar has come under suspicion for stealing fan club money and destroying the records. Abraham and Selena confront Yolanda, who denies any wrongdoing.

Most people know where it goes from here. After a brief scene of Selena performing one of her new English language songs, Dreaming of You, we see the aftermath of a murder. Yolanda has shot Selena in a hotel. Selena is rushed to the hospital, where she's pronounced dead. There are some shots of the family mourning, a montage of the actual Selena performing, and a candlelight vigil. Credits and tears run simultaneously.

What Really Happens:

If that ending seemed rushed and abrupt, it was. I'll get to that a bit later.

First, let's talk about what elements every good musical biopic should contain, and how Selena handles those elements.

1. Believable Actors
I can't stress this one enough. The actors you choose need to inhabit the spirit of the person they're playing. Physical resemblance is nice, but unnecessary. The Selena actors, for the most part, had an easier time of it than usual, because their counterparts weren't fantastically famous. Even so, they ALL do well, especially Edward James Olmos as Abraham.

Jennifer Lopez had the most daunting task. Selena may not have been well known to white audience, but Latino audiences were sure to scrutinize. By most accounts, she handled it admirably. The most interesting subplot here, of course, is the fact that J.Lo became a pop star not long after the film. Was it the chicken or the egg? Either way this is one of the very few times a pop star played another pop star. Even more interesting? The film's creators wisely chose not to use Lopez's thin voice and instead had her lip-synch to actual recordings of Selena.

2. Truth
Okay, by nature, a film can never really tell the whole story. Most viewers will take every detail as gospel, but this is rarely the case. What you hope is that the filmmakers only change small details to facilitate storytelling and avoid anything that could be labeled fabrication.

Selena's story was not one that a lot of people knew so director/writer Gregory Nava had some leeway here. However, to ensure accuracy, Abraham himself was executive producer (which is funny if you consider that he easily comes off the worst of anyone else in the film; at various points in the film he's clumsy, overbearing, and irrational). As far as I can tell, nothing major was fabricated, but there are details in the film that are misleading.

Selena does an admirable job overall, and it's only factual mistakes (or omissions) are minor. For example, in the film it appears that Chris and Selena met for the first time when he auditioned for her band. In fact, they already knew each other.

Additionally, the film fudges a bit with the timeline of Selena's success. Perhaps understandably, we aren't shown everything about her rise to the top. When the movie jump to 1989, we know the band is popular, but what we aren't told is that they've already recorded three albums! Usually these types of films make a huge deal about getting to cut a record, because that's what allows your music to live on. Similarly, we're asked to infer a lot of information, such as the fact that Selena's brother A.B. writes and arranges most of her songs! It's probably the music geek in me, but I find that stuff interesting.

3. Defining Moments
Being famous and popular does not automatically guarantee a musician a biopic. There have to be defining moments in their story. The Beatles are considered the greatest band ever because their story has so many of these moments: The death of John and Paul's mothers, Hamburg, The firing of Pete Best, George Martin having never produced a rock record in his life, Ed Sullivan, and so on.

Selena's story doesn't have many, mostly because it's so short, but the film makes the most of what's there. The Dinos, the family band driven by their father, the forbidden love between Chris and Selena, the Astrodome concert, and her death. In between are moments that feel like genuine remembrances of a very tight family unit. There are tender scenes between Selena and her parents (such as the one I mentioned earlier where her mother teachers her the cumbia). The romance between her and Chris is played out very sweetly and realistically. There are also depictions of life on the road and Selena's growing fame that make the film feel more personal than than your average biopic. In one particular scene, the kids take the tour bus to get gas and end up stuck in a ditch. A couple of tough-looking Latino men stop to help when they recognize Selena (or Selenas, as they call her). Despite their boasts, their car is not powerful enough to pull the bus out of the ditch. In fact, it yanks the bumper off their car. A.B. apologizes profusely and offers to pay, but the man won't hear it. He claims he's going to hang it on his wall with a plaque underneath, because it came from an encounter with "Selenas"). Later, the siblings retell the story to their parents, and tease Selena mercilessly about it. It has the ring of truth to it.

Selena's death is, unfortunately, the most intriguing aspect of her story. It has the tragedy element as well as the psychological intrigue. The movie doesn't completely give in to morbid fascination, but doesn't ignore it either. I had a slight problem with this, and honestly I think the filmmakers didn't really know how to handle it. You don't want to give Yolanda too much screen time and risk glorifying her in any way, and yet you can't completely ignore Selena's murder. So the movie tried to balance that and ended up obscuring what really happened. Why were Selena and Yolanda at the hotel? What led to the shooting? What kind of psychological problems was Yolanda battling that would lead her to kill her idol? The first two questions should definitely have been answered by the film.

4. Musical Performances
Finally, if you're going to show us the life of a musician, then you need to show lots of musical performances that feel accurate. Selena does this very well. There are tons of performing sequences, and J.Lo does a top-notch job lip-synching (which is not as easy as it might seem). When you see the footage of the real Selena at the end of the film, it's especially apparent that the filmmakers worked hard to recreate her dance moves and her costumes.

Questions and Comments:

Selena was released a mere 2 years after the singer's death, which means it was written and filmed in 1996. That makes it the fastest turnaround for a biopic in the history of the genre.

Did you know that Selena's favorite singer was Donna Summer? At the Astrodome concert she performs a disco medly with two Summer songs, and then in the flashback sequence where Abraham wants her to start singing in Spanish, she says she'd rather be Donna Summer.

Look for the scene where Abraham goes into an extended riff on what it's like to be Mexican-American and have to live up to the expectations of both cultures. "We have to be more Mexican than the Mexicans and more American than the Americans." He goes on and on about it. It's a definite "dad" moment, but also sheds light on living bi-culturally.

Director and writer Gregory Nava doesn't have a long resume, but he must have a good relationship with his actors. He had woked with Constance Marie (Gorge Lopez and several other TV appearances) and Edward James Olmos previous to Selena, and he made Bordertown with Lopez in 2006.

Did you know there was a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album? Selena won it in the film, and it sounded strange to me, so I looked it up. Yep, it's real. I suppose that is a large genre of music, but does anyone really call it Mexican-American music? Isn't that strangely specific? And how on earth did Linda Ronstadt win it in 1989 AND 1993? Someone please enlighten me.

Have you ever seen a crowd get so upset over the lack of dance music that they physically threaten musicians, as happens to Los Dinos? In Minnesota, we would just listen politely and then talk bad about them behind their backs after they left the stage.

In Conclusion:

Selena is not a perfect musical biopic, but it gets a lot of things right, and it's especially notable for how personal the story feels. It also manages to be a loving tribute without sacrificing truth.

If you feel like a good temporary heartbreak, queue this one up sometime.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Linda Ronstadt's dad was part Mexican. Thus she is one of the most successful Mexican American singing artists ever and she identifies strongly with her heritage (The Ronstadts have a rich history in the southwest).