Today, for Hispanic Heritage Month, we look at Gregory Nava's classic biopic from 1995, "Selena," starring a budding Jennifer Lopez in a breakthrough role. Similar to "La Bamba" from last week, "Selena" covers another short life – that of Selena Quintanilla-Pérez. Selena was on the verge of a major crossover and set to explode on the American pop music scene. But her life was cut short at the hands of a deranged fan with whom she had forged a close relationship. Like Ritchie Valens' death, Selena's was a big pop-culture moment. Her death left a lasting impact on music, Hispanic heritage, and the world.
"Selena" is just as much a story about her father Abraham Quintanilla as it is about the meteoric rise of the eponymous singer.
We first meet a young Abraham (Panchito Gómez) in the 1960s trying to make a living as a singer in a doo-wop troupe called the Dinos. Their gig at a seaside bar gets canceled when the owner finds out the group is of Mexican descent. Dejected but unwilling to call it quits, the Dinos find a new gig at a Mexican-American nightclub. But the crowd boos them off stage when they are unable to perform traditional Mexican music.
This double standard chases Abraham (now played by Edward James Olmos), as he and his wife Marcela (Constance Marie) raise their three young children. Their youngest, Selena (Rebecca Lee Meza), has a voice. This gives Abraham the idea of starting a family band to earn some extra money. But a good group needs a steady gig. And that gives Abraham another idea to open a Mexican restaurant. For starters, it's a perfect way to capitalize on the fact that "gringos love Mexican food." But it's also the perfect showcase for the family band, now dubbed Selena y Los Dinos.
Abraham also takes the band on the road. After a performance at a carnival falls flat, Selena realizes that some dance routines can help spice things up.
It's not long after that Selena y Los Dinos grow a following as they play across Texas. By 1989, a grown-up Selena (now played by Lopez) is finding her footing on the stage. Inspired by pop icons Madonna, Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, Selena dons a bustier for the first time. She owns it, but of course, father Abraham doesn't approve.
As the band's success grows, they start touring beyond Texas. It's not long before they need a new guitarist. Brother A.B. (Jacob Vargas) suggests Chris Pérez (Jon Seda), who takes an audition. Abraham initially dislikes Pérez's long hair and heavy metal background but gives him a shot and a haircut anyway.
The band gets ready for their big tour in Mexico. Abraham expects it to be a challenge. After all, the Mexican press is notoriously ruthless to Mexican-Americans, especially if they can't speak the language right. Selena, however, is a natural and wins them over. Just the same, she's a natural at calming a riled-up crowd that's crammed to see her perform.
On the bus, Pérez and Selena find it hard to hide their feelings for each other. After Abraham throws a fit and fires Pérez over the romance, the two continue to see each other in secret. They elope, but the press spills those beans. Worried about her father's reaction, Selena goes to confront Abraham. She finds that he's happy and he's happy for them.
Selena's star continues to rise. She is offered a chance from EMI Records to record an English-language album. At the same time, she opens a boutique in her hometown of Corpus Christi, TX. Selena looks to her fan club president Yolanda (Lupe Ontiveros), as the one person she can trust to handle the business and expenses.
Hispanic Heritage Month Connections
The death of Selena was a cultural touchstone. Her shooting shook not just her fans and those of Hispanic heritage. It shook the world. For many, this was the equivalent of John Lennon's death, and not just because it was another singer gunned down by a fan.
Selena's family battled a never-ending news cycle filled with incorrect reports and sensational headlines following her death. Like with Lennon and the death of Elvis Presley, many were quick to capitalize on the growing attention over the pop singer. It wasn't long before unauthorized biographies, documentaries, and even two unapproved films filled bookstores and airwaves. It was through this turmoil and frustration that the Quintanilla family took matters into their own hands.
Quintanilla patriarch Abraham expressed his desire for an authorized biopic, and news quickly spread to Hollywood. Even though he initially disagreed with the decision, Abraham conceded to let "My Family" helmer Gregory Nava lead the film. Nava would, coincidentally, select much of the cast from that film to round out many of the main roles. This included Edward James Olmos as Abraham, Constance Marie as mother Marcela, Jacob Vargas as brother A.B., Lupe Ontiveros as Yolanda Saldívar, and budding actress Jennifer Lopez in the lead.
As we touched on previously, Lopez wasn't the first choice for the role. Many criticized the selection of a Puerto Rican American to play one of the most famous Mexican Americans. Nevertheless, the Quintanilla family embraced Lopez and backed her casting wholeheartedly, seeing a lot of Selena in her. The production eventually inspired Lopez's turn into the world of music.
Why You Should See It
"Selena" is a celebration of the singer's life, and as such, the biopic excels. We previously wrote about Lopez and how this role was her big break, but Olmos is just as incredible, if not more so. Patient and understanding throughout the film, Olmos was even seen as a father figure for everyone on set when the cameras weren't rolling. There are moments of over-the-top melodrama, but those give way to riveting live performances that don't just show how much Selena owned the stage but also give a glimpse at how commanding J.Lo will soon become in the spotlight.
Did You Know
Feelings were still ripe when "Selena" debuted in theaters in March of 1997. As such, the filmmakers wanted to make sure everything sounded right for fans when they heard Selena's singing voice. Even though she wasn't yet singing professionally, Jennifer Lopez expected to be using her voice for the movie. The filmmakers instead coached Lopez on lip-syncing and dubbed in Selena's actual voice for the film. There is one spot in the movie where you can hear Lopez's real singing voice. That spot is during the intro of "Como La Flor," as Selena calms an already angered crowd at the Monterrey concert.
Matt Lissauer is a writer & data manager for Noovie. When he is not busy writing listicles, Matt is enjoying life in New Jersey with his lovely wife and three kids.