Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

For Selena, Jennifer Lopez weathered scrutiny to deliver a stellar tribute

Illustration for article titled For Selena, Jennifer Lopez weathered scrutiny to deliver a stellar tribute
Photo: Ricco Torres/AFP (Getty Images)

Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases, premieres, current events, or occasionally just our own inscrutable whims. This week: The Janelle Monáe thriller Antebellum was supposed to hit theaters. In its absence, we’re looking back at films starring musicians.


Selena (1997)

Less than a year after the devastating murder of Tejano superstar Selena Quintanilla-Perez, a casting call was issued for an upcoming authorized biopic based on her life. Over 21,000 people auditioned for the titular role throughout the course of a nationwide search, while certain big-name talents, like Salma Hayek, were invited by production to test for one of the most sought-after female roles since Gone With The Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara. Hayek turned down the role, feeling that stepping into the shoes of such a beloved figure—one who had only begun to experience certain heights of her crossover success—so soon after her death came with too much pressure. That left Jennifer Lopez, a former In Living Color Fly Girl and up-and-coming actor, to secure the part, ultimately cementing her place in pop culture and helping propel her to movie stardom.

With a dancer’s background and only a handful of acting credits to her name, Lopez was an all-around tough sell for the film’s crew and especially for devoted fans of the slain pop star. In fact, many of the singer’s followers (understandably) protested director Gregory Nava’s choice of the notably Puerto Rican actress, concerned that she might not have been able to grasp Selena’s complex Mexican-American experience or the serious weight of her cultural impact. Lopez, who was 25 years old at the time, took the dissent in stride and committed to doing the necessary homework—namely, spending copious amounts of time with the late artist’s family in their hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas, and watching Selena’s key performances crystallized in a heap of video cassettes. But it was going take a lot more than memorizing “Como La Flor” and donning Selena cosplay to win over skeptics. With that understanding, Lopez delivered one of the sincerest performances of her career—one that she only came close to matching with 2019’s Hustlers.

Selena, as a biopic, neatly traces the rising star’s path from singing in her family’s struggling restaurant to crossover success, distilling her unfairly short life into resonant anecdotes and shot-for-shot music performances. It doesn’t exactly shirk conventional biographical cinema—you get your obligatory montage highlighting the peak of success, the heavy-duty familial rifts, all the pertinent scandal—but that’s fine. What makes Nava’s portrait of Selena so engaging is the reverent attention to beloved details, from the eagle-eyed reconstruction of her famed stage looks by costume designer Elisabetta Beraldo to Lopez’s close (but not exact, because that’s impossible) recreation of the stage presence that made her such a star.

But beyond her bedazzled bustiers and powerful vocals, Selena was an immensely charismatic, gutsy young upstart who, during her career’s nascency, had a lot to prove as a performer straddling the rather sticky line between two very different cultures. Though she could never claim to fully identify with the distinct Mexican-American experience, Lopez also had her fair share to prove as an up-and-coming actress daring to portray a widely grieved figure, and carried out the task with impressive poise. To date, it remains one of the better tributes to a luminary dimmed before her prime.


Availability: Selena is available to rent digitally through Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and VUDU.