Movies tend to live or die on their casting, and writer-director Gregory Nava is indeed fortunate to have the fast-rising Jennifer Lopez ("Jack," "Money Train," "Blood & Wine") as the star of his musical biography, "Selena."
As the Mexican-American singer whose 1995 murder made her a posthumous media sensation, Lopez is sexy, charming, completely credible. When she's on stage in the numerous concert scenes (one filmed before a crowd of 35,000 extras), the movie is alive.
She also works well with America's reigning Hispanic-American actor, Edward James Olmos, as her mentor, manager and father, Abraham. In the film's better off-stage moments, it works as a touching father-daughter relationship drama.
Unfortunately, it's otherwise a fairly routine backstage biopic -- at turns cliched, preachy, sappy and tedious, and always so respectful of the family members (who come off sweeter than the Partridge Family) that it never feels especially believable. As an exploration of her murder, it's even less satisfying.
Nava's script traces the roots of Selena's meteoric career in the frustration of her father, whose own career as a do-wop singer in Corpus Christi, Texas, in the early '60s is cut short, largely because of racial bias -- both from Anglos who won't accept a Hispanic rock singer and Hispanics who want only "Mexican music."
In 1981, he quits his secure job and starts to channel his musical frustration into a family singing group composed of his three young children: a son, an older daughter and 9-year-old Selena (delightfully played as a child by Becky Lee Meza). None of the kids, incidentally, speaks Spanish.
The rest of the film traces Selena's rags-to-riches rise in the Hispanic-American Texas music scene, a triumphant tour of Mexico, a Grammy as best Mexican-American artist, elopement with her lead guitarist and, just as she seems on the verge of a big cross-over album, sudden death (apparently at the hands of the woman who ran her fan club).
With Selena's father serving as executive producer, two Hispanic producers, and writer-director Nava (whose 1984 instant classic, "El Norte," established him as America's top Hispanic-American filmmaker) at the helm, the PG-rated film is understandably ultra-respectful of Selena, her family and the Mexican-American image.
But the result of all this respect is a rather bland TV movie that might have been sponsored by the Catholic Church. It also has the problem that Selena's off-stage life was not especially eventful: She was a good kid; she married her first lover; she didn't do drugs.
Nava tries to overcome the lack of obstacles in her early life by emphasizing (and perhaps over-emphasizing) her impact as a feminist artist and trailblazer for Hispanic-American women. Given the long history of successful Hispanic-American women as entertainers in America, that argument is not highly convincing.
Dramatically, her tragic death is also a problem for the movie. Perhaps because it has yet to be resolved in the courts, the movie doesn't stage it, nor does it try to tell us exactly what happened.
But whatever happened, it was apparently pointless. There is no great moral lesson to be learned from it, no higher meaning to her demise. As tragic as her untimely death was, Selena was not a martyr to anything the filmmakers can quite put their fingers on.
Starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos
Directed by Gregory Nava
Released by Warner Bros.
Sun score: ** 1/2
Pub Date: 3/21/97