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3/31/97

There was a moment in SELENA when I had a clear recognition of myself in one of the characters. The night before the Grammy Awards, Selena and a friend go shopping in a mall. A stockboy spots Selena outside a dressing room and instantly sends out the word that the singer is in the mall. Within minutes, ardent fans clog the little boutique. Selena patiently signs autographs and chats with her admirers. The befuddled shopkeeper asks a girl in the mob, "What's going on?" "It's Selena!" she gasps. "She's here for the Grammys!" The shopkeeper replies, "Who?"

At that moment, I recognized the shopkeeper in me. I was entirely oblivious to Selena in 1994, when she and her band, Selena y Los Dinos, won a Grammy for Best Mexican-American Album. Eventually, I learned of her existence and even heard one of her songs. But when the ex-president of her fan club took her life -- two years ago today -- I knew little more.

SELENA taught me lots. For instance, I didn't know Selena was American-born -- a native Texan to be exact. I didn't know she learned Spanish at age 9 because her father wanted her to sing Spanish-language songs. I didn't know hers was a family act, with her brother playing bass, her sister on drums and her father managing the group from pre-teen obscurity to 20-something stardom.

But you don't need a movie to tell you this (much of it is in the liner notes to Selena's CD, _Dreaming of You_). For the movie to work, it had to present a compelling story, one that didn't derive its importance simply from the fact that Selena dies in the end. It also had to steer clear of hagiography and present Selena as human, not divine. SELENA faced that challenge, with a mixed bag of success and failure.

A great deal of the success lay in keeping the focus off of Selena for a good chunk of the film. The movie begins as the story of Selena's father, Abraham (Edward James Olmos), who recognizes musical talent in his children and cultivates it to fulfill his own unrealized aspirations. Once the kids perform for an audience for the first time, the family becomes the protagonist. As the group grows older and success comes their way the emphasis falls on Selena herself. Unfortunately, the movie then becomes peppered with scenes that seem like Bible stories: the tale of the fans aiding Selena's broken-down tour bus, the press conference in Monterey, the concert where she quieted the crowd of 100,000. The story of her love with guitarist Chris Perez attempts to keep her real, with some success, but also with a heavy dose of romantic bromides. The film takes a nosedive near the end, when scene after gushy scene impress upon viewers how happy Selena was before she met her tragic end.

Jennifer Lopez was good as Selena. Lopez began her career as a Fly Girl on TV's "In Living Color." She broke through on the big screen with MONEY TRAIN and can be seen later this year in ANACONDA. Her portrayal of the teenage Selena is filled with warmth and traces of a little girl's exuberance. And she nicely metamorphoses from a kid with a great voice and couple dance steps to a world-class performer with a powerful stage presence. Along the way, she conveys the kindness and humility that endeared Selena to those around her. She won me over.

It doesn't hurt that Lopez looks a lot like the real Selena. In general, the casting seemed right on in terms of matching looks. SELENA closes with a montage of the real Selena and her family -- I often could not see a difference between the actors and the persons they portrayed.

Unfortunately, beyond Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos, the acting is fairly bland. The little girl who played the young Selena was actually rather painful. She looks just like the young Selena and her voice was terrific. But her delivery often seemed influenced by the Spanky and Alfalfa school of acting. The woman who played Yolanda Saldivar -- Selena's murderer -- acted as if she were in a commercial for kitchen products.

An occasionally awkward script contributed to some of the false moments; others were the fault of director Gregory Nava. However, Nava scored points with me for the way he handled Selena's murder. You know it is inevitable and a handful of scenes portend its arrival. But when it hits, it is so sudden and swift that it hardly seems part of the movie. And that's the point. Selena's death makes no sense given the context of her life. While it might have been interesting to have learned more about Yolanda Saldivar and her motivations, keeping that role small emphasized the senselessness of the act. It works; I wouldn't change it at all.

I left the theater, not in tears, but genuinely saddened. Despite many shortcomings that kept it from being a good film as such, SELENA showed me a talented individual with a lot of love to give, robbed of the chance to give it. Fans will love SELENA. Kids 8 to 15 will likely love SELENA, as will many parents. I didn't, but I will say one thing about the movie. I never had a reason to miss Selena before. Now I do.

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