20 Years On: “Selena”

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When it comes to biographical films, or biopics as they’re sometimes called, the ability to craft a compelling narrative isn’t always that easy, even when it seems like it should be. There’s so much that’s occurred in the subject’s life, that whittling it down to what’s crucial and will draw people in seems impossible. How does someone pick and choose what’s most important? How will they know if it’s enough to paint a decent picture of who the subject was and what they went through?

The Warner Bros. Pictures film “Selena” is still a moving and inspiring film, but one that also shows that not all biographical films need to be overly dramatic and emotionally heavy to be entertaining. No, some just need to show what can happen when you follow your dreams, even if they’re sadly cut short. While this is a film I’ve grown up with and have been watching on and off for at least the past 17 years, it still manages to draw me in. I know it practically by heart, so there’s possibly a bit of a bias there, but I still feel that I am able to learn why this film keeps me coming back every so often. There’s also now a bit of irony, as writing this will now be more challenging than with other films. Let this be a lesson of sorts. The last time I wrote about this film was two years ago, which was the 20th anniversary of Selena’s death, so there was a slightly different focus then. Hopefully now I can do enough to recognize what this film still gives viewrs two decades later.

Live!

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For some reason, I’d forgotten the value of using actual vocals instead of having the actors perform the songs themselves. While there’s only one recent example of this, that comes to mind, it’s enough to make me always want the actual vocals of whatever singer or singers are being portrayed. And, to put your mind at ease, that film would be “Cadillac Records”, and Beyoncé Knowles was portraying Etta James. For as good a performer as Knowles is, hearing her sing one of James’ songs just altered my perception of who she was trying to portray, and made it hard for me to be thrilled with anything she was doing with the character. It’s also why I still haven’t seen the film and pretty much refuse to ever do so.

But this film doesn’t just benefit from not having to hear some semi-decent cover version of Selena’s songs, which would only amount to being one big showcase of the vocal talents that star Jennifer Lopez has. This is really all I feel was accomplished with allowing Knowles to perform instead of using James’ vocals. No, this film also, if you’ll bear with me, allows (or allowed when the film originally opened) for fans to kind of get one more moment with the real life person. I’m even certain that people who hadn’t heard of Selena or heard her music, could get into a similar mindset. Sure people who watch obviously know she’s dead, but some small part is able to connect because they’re able to hear her voice. I know I can respond in some way, and I wasn’t even old enough to know who she was when she died. If it weren’t for this film and the use of Selena’s various recordings, I don’t think I’d know about her in any way. I certainly couldn’t appreciate, in the small way I can, what she gave to so many people and how she’s probably still inspiring so many.

But it’s not just getting one last personal connection that makes the use of Selena’s vocals a good choice. It’s the fact that there’s an emotional consistency and when we see Lopez as Selena on stage with the band, you can come pretty close to what it was like at one of her shows. I, of course, am just assuming, but if I can respond the way I did, which was to get pretty damn involved, then I’d say something must be working well. That and I’ve heard a lot of her music, so I’m already singing the songs as it is.

Anyway. It’s not just that Selena’s vocals were used, it’s that her live recordings were used. I’m not too sure from which concerts producers chose from, but the fact that they’re live paints a different picture altogether. You can really get involved in the concerts portrayed on screen. It’s one of the reasons why I love that writer and director Gregory Nava chose to start the film with Selena’s concert at the Houston Astrodome in February of 1995. It’s all live recordings, and just increases the energy level even more! Then the film goes on, but instead of just being emotional dramatic moment after emotional dramatic moment, with the occasional musical bit, you get all of those things flowing smoothly. You could feel what it was like to be a fan and to be a proud family member watching or playing alongside on stage as well as what life was like for everyone. And when the film wasn’t showcasing the live performances, other Selena recordings were used and could still move you on some emotional level.

Familial Connections

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Helping move you in general, but also through the story, are the characters. Nava could’ve easily gotten this wrong and thus the actors wouldn’t have had anything to work with or certainly anything as good, but he didn’t. He knew the story he wanted to tell and to what emotional level the whole film needed to reach. Without this, I don’t think this film could’ve achieved any of the success it did.

First and foremost, in so many ways, this film’s story didn’t require that much heavy lifting. Picking and choosing which parts of Selena’s story to tell and capture who she really was is one thing, but I don’t feel this falls under that same category. Yes, there’s plenty of drama in the story, but it never felt like it needed to be manipulated. The film showed enough of what happened and how it effected everyone, but it didn’t need to be over the top or come close to melodrama to have an impact. And so, the actors were able to do the best work possible. I don’t believe anyone was bad, but I also can’t say they reached some high caliber of acting. No, they were all as good as the film required. No more, no less. Again, this film didn’t seem to require that type of work and so it comes across differently than most biographical films. This is also goes back to the source material and the overall type of film that Nava was making. He wasn’t out to make some dark and dreary film, but one that could touch you in a human and relatable way, all the while showing an honest picture of its subject. And so, solid and good performances could be had without sacrificing anything.

This allowed for something more important to come through. Real characters, whom you not only love, but also have you believing in the relationships you’re witnessing on screen. Even with two years between this viewing and my last, I managed to forget just how strong the familial bonds are. And so, upon seeing them all from start to finish, I just got it. I needed no extra convincing. As the film’s story moved along and the bonds were tested and strengthened, I practically fell in love with the family. This may be a fictional representation of a former complete family unit, but I believe that Nava truly aimed to showcase who they really were.

Because of this great focus on the familial relationships, and the band’s touring environment, which really goes hand in hand, you just got so many great moments. Even when drama weaved its way in and out, it wasn’t long before another moment worth smiling about occurred. The interesting thing about these moments isn’t that you can simply classify them as happier moments, it’s that it explores the family even more. Through so much, they’re always there for one another. I’m pretty much envious of what was detailed. The love just radiated and I pretty much didn’t want to leave. Which makes the film’s eventual and inevitable ending all the more sad. It gets me every time. I guess, in so many ways, this was the whole point of how Nava wanted to tell this story.

Inspiration Lasts Forever

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And, of course, one can’t forget about all the ways in which Selena inspired so many. The film’s very existence proves this. And keeping with that, the fact that this film can still be so uplifting, inspiring and moving after all these years, shows that something good was able to be done with the source material.

I’ll admit, a little strangely, that when you think about it, there wasn’t much to offer from a narrative standpoint. This is also the obvious drawback of basing a film on someone who didn’t have the opportunity to lead that long a life. While Selena did in fact accomplish so much and was in the midst of accomplishing even more, at the same time, she only had so much to show during her short lifetime. However, Nava got it right. He knew what type of story he wanted to tell. It kind of rings of that rags to riches story we so often associate with biographical films, particularly those of famous artists, but it manages to be something different. It becomes something else.

Using flashbacks at the start of the film doesn’t just supply context and motivation for Edward James Olmos’ Abraham Quintanilla, but shows how far Selena came. Sure they were doing pretty well by the standards of the time, but passion and drive allowed for the whole family to move well beyond that. I like this simply because it’s different and similar. You don’t have to be just trying to fulfill your dreams for the sole purpose of bettering yourself. You could be doing so because you truly have a passion and talent, and that comes before you think of the wealth you could achieve. That’s what I see represented in this film, and that’s by far more important than just stating the fact that Selena became so famous. While the long and the short is really as cliche as they come, this film provides enough for anyone to hopefully keep whatever dream they have alive. Oh, and it’s still entertaining and compelling. I can’t forget that. It’s another reason I come back time and again.

The moving original trailer:

Originally Released: March 21, 1997

Written and directed: Gregory Nava

Starring: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Jacob Vargas, Lupe Ontiveros, Jackie Guerra and Rebecca Lee Meza

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