Warner Home Video
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda
Extras: Featurettes, Deleted Scenes, Trailer
Anyone who lived in Texas in 1995 must certainly remember the statewide attention devoted to the death of Tejano singer Selena Quintanilla-Perez. Known simply as Selena, the 23-year-old was shot to death in Corpus Christi by her fan club president after confronting her with allegations of embezzlement. Though the singer's popularity was concentrated primarily in the Latin-music industry, her death received unexpectedly massive media coverage around the world. It held its biggest impact, however, in her home state of Texas, where thousands of fans flocked to her home, her funeral, and later, her grave. Mourners held candle-light vigils and could be seen driving during the day with their headlights on and purple ribbons tied to their antennas. Somehow, this unsuspecting young woman had captured the hopes of a culture in great need of positive representation.
Less than two years later, Warner Brothers announced the production of a film based on Selena's life and career. With her tragic murder still very fresh in people's memories, the question of how to handle the subject matter without offending her fans was a crucial one. To avoid controversy, the studio enlisted the participation of her family to assist in the making of the film. Her father, Abraham Quintanilla Jr., was credited as executive producer. In some ways, this turned out to be both a blessing and a curse, as the family's involvement allowed the actors to develop more authentic performances but also forced the filmmakers to cut back on some of the less flattering aspects of the characters' lives. Because of this, "Selena" frequently comes across as sentimental and glossed over, forgoing serious drama for lighthearted corn.
The movie opens with the grown Selena (Jennifer Lopez) preparing for what would ultimately be her last concert, in the Houston Astrodome. Standing in front of what one reporter notes is the largest crowd in the Astrodome's history, she belts out a medley of disco hits to thunderous cheers. The movie then flashes back to 1961, when a young Abraham Quintanilla struggles to find success with his band, The Dinos. They are turned out of a whites-only club because they are Mexican and are booed out of a Mexican club for singing only in English. Jumping forward to 1981, Abraham (played as an older man by Edward James Olmos) is now married with three children. Having never lost his desire to join the music industry, he finds new opportunity to start a band when he hears nine-year-old Selena's (Rebecca Lee Meza) beautiful voice.
For the first several years of performing, Selena y Los Dinos stumble from one rocky disappointment to another, brought on by the fact that the Tejano music scene is dominated by men, not to mention initial protests from Marcella (Constance Marie), Selena's mother who wanted a simple life for her children. When 18-year-old Selena begins incorporating trendy dance moves and more provocative wardrobe into her routines, she quickly catches public attention, much to her overprotective father's chagrin.
With their popularity rising, the band welcomes a new guitarist with a harder edge. Chris Perez (Jon Seda) and Selena have an immediate attraction, but it is one that they must keep hidden from Abraham. The major conflict of the film arises from Abraham's objection to their relationship, fearing that Chris' wild lifestyle will tarnish Selena's reputation and break the strong connection between the family. This is all quickly resolved, however, when Selena and Chris elope, forcing Abraham to accept his daughter's independence.
Like most musical biographies, "Selena" is episodic and falls into many of the usual clichés. Due to the fact that Selena was a relatively straight-laced person and partially due to her family's involvement in the film's production, the movie presents very few obstacles for its subject. The early years of her career are basically skipped over (perhaps because it would have been difficult to make the gradual transition from the child actress to the adult Lopez), leaving unfamiliar viewers wondering exactly how she reached such heights of success. The conflict with Chris only takes up a small part of the movie, quickly making room for the entrance of Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), the obsessed woman who became Selena's friend and eventual killer. The relationship between the two women and the murder are dealt with only briefly and with little detail. This is understandable considering how soon after her death the movie was made, but for viewers not entirely familiar with it, the circumstances may seem confusing and abrupt.
The script, written by director Gregory Nava, dwells upon many unnecessary details, such as an extended scene in which Chris gets his hair cut, and is filled with often corny dialogue. Having come off of two critically acclaimed films about Mexican families ("El Norte" and "My Family"), Nava seemed like an appropriate choice for this film. It seems, though, that his strengths as a director are not matched by his writing skills, and the film loses focus very quickly.
Jennifer Lopez, on the other hand, elevates the film immensely with her radiant and energetic performance. A relative newcomer at the time, Lopez had not yet created the J. Lo persona that has largely undermined her once promising career, and she demonstrates a natural talent and fresh appeal that she has never quite captured since. Edward James Olmos gives a fine performance as well, effectively balancing Abraham's emotional outbursts with his more tender moments to create a believable personality. The role of Selena's mother is frustratingly underwritten, which is unfortunate for Constance Marie, who shows a true presence in the early parts of the film before she is virtually cast aside.
Of course, no musical biopic would be of interest without the music of its subject, and Selena's songs are put on nonstop parade. Nava chose to utilize recordings of Selena's original record tracks and live performances rather than have Lopez sing, but the results are dynamite. Each number is edited with gusto and snappy pacing, and Lopez's spirited dancing and expert lip-synching matched with Selena's unrestrained vocals create an immediacy that showcases both women at their sublime best.
For Warner Home Video's 10th Anniversary Special Edition DVD, they are offering two versions of the film in a two-disc set. Disc 1 includes the original theatrical version (127 min.), while disc 2 includes an extended 134-minute director's cut. As expected, the extended cut is the same version that has played on network TV for several years, with some added scenes of Selena's early life and some expanded musical numbers. To be honest, none of this additional footage really adds much depth to the story. A couple of scenes of young Selena in school fall flat dramatically and reveal that Rebecca Lee Meza, while precocious, was not the strongest child actress.
The transfer that Warner has provided is not really a vast improvement over their previous edition. Like the old edition, the film is presented in 2.35:1 widescreen and enhanced for 16×9 TVs. There are still some speckles and bits of dirt here and there, but they are not very noticeable. The picture quality is a tad soft throughout. Colors are generally vibrant, complementing the wonderful location photography and Lopez's flashy costumes. Skin tones appear accurate. The print used for the extended version looks a tad cleaner, but it still displays negligible dirt and softness.
Both versions of the film are accompanied by Dolby Digital 5.1 English tracks. Like the picture quality, they too are not as dynamic as one would hope, especially for a movie that is so dependent on music and the sound of cheering crowds. The surround is utilized nicely during the concert scenes, helping to spread the chaotic screams and the music around the room. There just is not a lot of punch to it. The audio sometimes sounds a bit restrained, even in the dialogue scenes. Subtitles are provided in English, Spanish, and French.
Where this DVD really trumps the old bare-bones edition is in the special features department. On disc 1 of this set, you will find the 30-minute featurette, "The Making of Selena: 10 Years Later." This consists mainly of retrospective interviews with actors Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, director Gregory Nava, the film's producers, Selena's family, and other cast and crew members. They tell stories of their participation in the film and various stages of production, including the casting and rehearsing. While much of this has been documented elsewhere, it was nice to see some rare footage of Lopez's screen test and to hear the family's take on the final production.
Also on disc 1 are nine deleted scenes. For the most part, these add little to the movie, and it is easy to see why they were cut. There are a couple of nice scenes, however, with Constance Marie ("Food Stamps" and "Worried Parents") that I wish could have been included, if only to fill out her role a bit more. A trailer rounds out this disc.
Disc 2 contains one featurette called "Selena: Queen of Tejano." The 19-minute segment features interviews with Selena's family and former band members discussing how they got into the music business and their struggle to become successful. This short featurette, once again, does not contain much that hasn't been detailed elsewhere, but it is a reflective tribute to Selena that fans should enjoy. Owners of Warner's original disc will definitely want to pick up this new set for the additional features and extended scenes.
"Selena" is by no means the best musical biography around, and it is not the best film that it could have been either. Yet, in spite of its dramatic shortcomings, the film succeeds as a loving tribute to a fallen starlet, and that's all it was ever meant to be. It serves as a wonderful introduction to Selena's music, and Jennifer Lopez breathes life into her role as no one else could. "Selena" is a film that strives more for the heart than the mind, and it suits its heroine's bubbly and joyous personality.