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This is how dear Gregory Nava’s enthusiastic, soft-hitting musical biopic Selena is: so dear you forget why it was made. There seems to be every reason in the world to tell this girl’s cuddlesome life story, even if that life hadn’t been cut drastically short and the tejana star been thus catapulted into the realm of the semilegendary.
Anyone holding out for the real Selena storythe one exposing her wormiest secretsis in for a long wait. Even if her controlling father/manager Abraham Quintanilla did puppeteer this production (as he did her career), Selena stays within the parameters of the truth, and that truth doesn’t allow for much scandal. Selena was a star but also a family actbrother Abie wrote songs and produced, sister Suzette played drums, Dad bullied the kids and drove the busand by the time of her death, at 23, she couldn’t have fit in too many rock ‘n’ roll hi-jinks out of sight of the tightknit group.
Latino culture in present-day Texas, with its close families and crossover stresses, is one of the things Selena gets right; director Nava (El Norte, Mi Familia) doesn’t white out or caricature his subjects. When young Abraham and his friends, doo-wop crazy in the early ’60s, are told they can’t audition for a singing gig at a beachside club, they don’t spend one second being confused by the club manager’s lame story. The anticipation of racism gives way to a wave-from-the-porches friendliness the Quintanillas share with their neighbors in a mixed neighborhood 20 years later. Without emphasis, Nava lets details do the cultural authenticating.
Abraham suppresses his musical dreams until years later, when 9-year-old Selena displays an uncanny singing ability. Immediately, he gathers the family to insist they live out his buried fantasies, forming a group (Los Dinos, the name of his teenage outfit; later Selena y Los Dinos) that bashes out oldies on secondhand equipment. The kids comply, miserably, eventually Abraham allows them an updated repertoire, Mom teaches little Selena the cumbia, and they start dragging the outfit to local fairs to appear as a novelty opening act.
Edward James Olmos’ depiction of Abraham may be more gently drawn than the original, but he’s still a formidable, unforgiving taskmaster, prone to manically impulsive periods. (If this is the version of himself the real Quintanilla OK’d, one shudders at what it leaves out.) As his pliant little girl grows up to be a vivid, strong-minded beauty (Jennifer Lopez), it’s clear there’s going to be trouble between them, and equally clear that it will be resolved in tears and hugs.
The movie never gets too serious about its subject. This is Selena’s story, so the defining passages of her short life are less than the stuff of legendfirst sequined bra (Olmos is terrific apoplectically reacting to the word “bustier”), first inkling of her talent for flashy fashion design (matching cowhide suits for the band), first No. 1 hit, first and presumably only love. Jon Seda has a sexy chipmunk smile and an appealing low-key manner as Chris Perez, a heavy-metal guitarist drafted to amend his style for Selena’s spicy party pop. His long hair and some obscure past trouble warn Abraham against him, but true love prevails onscreen as it did in life.
Lopez and Seda are charming together, gawkily tracing the boundaries of their affection on interminable bus trips between gigs. The script does not romanticize life on the road for a working group. Even when Chris is banned from traveling with them and he and Selena must steal time together, they do nothing more than eat fast food in his truck. Certainly Quintanilla wouldn’t allow his late daughter to be seen sneaking out for nooners, but the pizza-parlor dates fit; after 10 years on the road amid her family, meeting a cute guy for a Coke is a plausible version of rebellion.
The musical sequences are generous and mostly shot without fuss; this is where Lopez sizzles. (It’s great to see the definition of sexiness add a few pounds. Lopez is so cute in her sparkly outfits, tight as the peel on a grape, you want to run right out and ply Winona Ryder with BLTs.) Selena’s music may have been on the accessible side of Latin-inflected tejano dance numbers, but Lopez shows why she was beloved by Latino audiences; lip-syncing, she puts over the hits with unlimited style and verve.
Selena’s murder, tastefully implied, comes as a surpriseNava doesn’t hint morbidly or in any way cast a shadow over the heroine’s sunny life. After getting to know the whole family and watching this little girl grow, it seems horribly unfair that the movie would end this waymuch worse, of course, that Selena’s real story did.
Robert Townsend must be as baffled by the movie business as he anticipated in the scabrous, low-budget Hollywood Shuffle, written and directed (and financed with credit cards) by a young hopeful who wasn’t even inside enough to know the extent to which the industry is willing to jerk around blacks. His one shot at mainstream success1991’s charming The Five Heartbeats, a fictional biography of a Coasterslike ’50s outfitwas greeted with as much enthusiasm as greeted the plague, and he must have figured Hollywood wanted him to do wan parodies like Meteor Man.
Townsend always sensed the point at which sending up white folks’ conception of blacks crossed over into perpetuating that conception, but with B.A.P.S. he has lost the ability to tell what’s a dream come true and what’s a pathetic sellout to the gross Hollywood vision of happiness.
B.A.P.S. opens promisingly: Inside a Georgia ‘cue-joint, a waitress’s hand, spiked with an insane 4-inch julienne job, picks up a plate and hands it to another waitress with equally long and inconvenient talons. Denise (Halle Berry) and Mickey (Natalie Desselle) have gold teeth, impossible hairdos, and wardrobes that could be spotted by the Hubbell telescope. They’re divas, country-style, with dreams of opening a restaurant/hair salon and retiring swathed in faux leopardskin and pylon-orange vinyl. They hear about a contest that promises $10,000 and a prime spot in a Heavy D video, so they ditch their loser boyfriends and pack up the faux leopardskin and pylon-orange vinyl and head for L.A.
They lose the contest but win the attention of an evil preppie with a scheme to gain control of his elderly uncle’s fortune. The girls are ensconced in a ridiculous Beverly Hills mansion, fed an improbable story, and told to bounce playfully around the richie (Martin Landau) while waiting for their check. He takes a liking to them, and so many stock passages follow it’s hardly worth retelling: the trying-on-clothes-in-fancy-boutiques montage, the scene where Mickey whips up one of her lusty-but-low-cal meals for the old invalid while the snobby kitchen staff watches snobbily, the humiliating disco scene in which the crusty English butler (Ian Richardsondon’t ask) gets down to that funky sound.
Not that any of this matters; the plot makes no sense even if the execution is so competent it’s hard to dismiss. Gradually the girls lose their vulgar accoutrements and refine their tastes, so much so that by the end the improbabilities (not to mention the imponderables) come flocking home to roost in one claustrophobic crush that not only takes away the breath but precludes asking why we should care about any of this. Denise ends up with a Marilyn Monroe platinum pageboy and a flattering, tasteful wardrobe Jil Sander might find too understated; Mickey, in long lines and dark colors, has learned to feel shame for her big, busty body.
After this spectacle of assimilation, we’re asked to weep at the touching reunion between the girls and their only loves, the loser boyfriends. We know they’re good guys now because they wear sweaters. The title, by the way, means “black American princesses,” referring to the fairy-tale arc of this story as well as the girls’ patriotic acquisitiveness. But is this the dream little Cinderellas should cherish: that with the wave of a wand, they’ll get to go to the ball as white girls?CP