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She Shall Survive

Rico Torres

Star Quality: Jennifer Lopez dreams of crossover success in the worshipful bio-pic "Selena."

Director Gregory Nava salutes Selena onscreen

By Richard von Busack

Grammy-winning singer Selena Perez was killed in 1995, just when she starting to achieve crossover success. Considering that there was no way to make the movie Selena without genuflecting, director Gregory Nava (El Norte) gives the story of her short life some conflict and shape. Nava lights a candle to the saint while concentrating on a far more interesting character: Selena's father, Abraham (Edward James Olmos). The high point of Selena is Olmos' speech about how rough it is to be Mexican-American--never being American enough for America, never being Mexican enough for Mexico.

Abraham is a driven show-biz father who also has some of the fumbling helplessness of Homer Simpson; like Homer, he gets a laugh when he shows off his belly, collapsing into bed in his underwear. Abraham organizes a family band, training Selena from youth to be a singer. (She's played by Jennifer Lopez, who has a dazzling smile, a lithe body and not a lot else.) After the usual troubles and triumphs, Abraham hires a hot guitarist with a past, Chris (Jon Seda). He is tamed by Selena's good influence, and the two fall in love. Abraham is opposed to their romance, and Selena, who risks becoming a female Isaac, has to assert herself against her powerful father.

A few scenes are exciting. In L.A. for the Grammy awards, Selena goes to a huge shopping center on the edge of Beverly Hills and is snubbed at a boutique by the white salesgirls. She is then identified by a clerk who rushes out to spread the news. We cut to the loading dock, to the kitchens of the fast-food restaurants and to the maintenance garages as the word gets out; Selena is then mobbed by fans right in front of the salesgirls who insulted her. In one of concert scenes--a well-edited montage of three different shows braided together--Selena plays a street show in the shadow of the Alamo, which is a most satisfying sight.

It's surprising, though, how little music there is in Selena. And this is a story of music being watered down for mass consumption; Selena's career is capped by her bland ballad "I Could Fall in Love With You." Her love of me-first anthems like "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "I Shall Survive" complements her fight for artistic integrity--being allowed by her dad to wear a rhinestone bustier on stage. Again and again, the move refers to her dream: becoming a new Paula Abdul or a new Janet Jackson. Selena actually suggests that her music wasn't a triumph of dreams but of unstoppable marketing. Surely the real Selena was more interested in music than in pure celebrity? When she accepts her Grammy, Selena even uses the deadly phrase "Without you, I'd be nothing." Always turn that phrase around when you hear it; it actually means "I'm really something, and you're nothing."

Selena (PG; 131 min.), written and directed by Gregory Nava, photographed by Edward Lachman and starring Jennifer Lopez and Edward James Olmos.

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