No matter. The fans of Selena, Queen of Tejano, are about to get a $23 million memorial, and they needn't make a pilgrimage to this Gulf-port city either. Two years after the Mex-Tex singer was killed by the president of her fan club, a reverent Hollywood biopic is opening around the country. Selena, from writer-director Gregory Nava (El Norte, Mi Familia), stars Jennifer Lopez in a Spanish-accented version of the old star-is-born tale. Urged on by her father (Edward James Olmos), a gifted girl rises to the top of her niche market. She falls in love and elopes with her band's guitarist (Jon Seda)--a defiant gesture that tests but doesn't defile her dad's love. She's ready to ride the pop mainstream when Yolanda Saldivar, a trusted friend, cuts Selena down at 23. End of a life, beginning of a legend.
"I didn't do the movie to exploit my daughter," insists Abraham Quintanilla Jr., 57, who formed the group Selena y Los Dinos when the girl was just nine and served as its manager and goading spirit. "I did it because there's an insatiable desire from the public to know more about her." Nonetheless, Selena is the latest, largest artifact in the kind of postmortem career maintenance that not only honors but also profits from a slain celebrity. Selena still has three albums on Billboard's Latin Top 50 chart. Music awards continue to come her way. The family has kept promoting Selena hair salons, Selena fashions and a new Selena doll ($22 plus tax).
Scavengers are also circling. E! the Entertainment Channel aired a re-enactment of Saldivar's trial and plans to rebroadcast it soon. And in Selena's Secret, the newest of at least half a dozen unsanctioned bio books about the star, author and Univision hostess Maria Celeste Arraras coyly hints that Selena kept a secret diary and was planning to torpedo her career for a tryst with the Mexican plastic surgeon who administered her liposuction treatments. The family denies these scandals.
The Selena film studiously avoids the sensational. It dares to be a slow, stolid film about goodness, to build its story on the rock of family love. The main conflict is over Selena's love for long-haired Chris, the metal guitarist who plays pappy pop when he joins the band--he's a rebel without a chord. Chris is also the excuse for a later tearful reconciliation between Selena and Dad. Though they are often at loggerheads, they are never at loggerhearts. Selena's too devoted for that. She's a modern-day saint in spandex.
To give it a tang in the common consciousness, any new form of pop music needs an emblematic satyr or a martyr. Rock had Elvis; reggae, Bob Marley. Selena was no wild woman, though onstage she zestily displayed her full figure in spangled bustiers. She succeeded in Tejano (a blend of Mexican ranchera, polka, country and pop, Colombian cumbia, even reggae) by projecting an aerobic perkiness--Gloria Estefan tinged with Janet Jackson.
Her songs, usually written and arranged by her brother Abraham III, are perky too, cheerful rather than soulful. The early ones, with their tinny, Tijuana Brass charts and keyboards that evoke calliopes, are ideal for the fairground or merry-go-round. Later efforts had broader pop inflections; they complement Selena's expert mimicry of everything from Edith Piaf's melodramatic contralto to the coloratura riffs of Mariah Carey. But the sound is still lightly Hispanic; the tunes are infectious fluff. Los Dinos was a band for a fiesta or wedding, where the bride has a sweet last dance with her father.
Selena's father, known as Abraham to distinguish him from his composer son ("A.B."), was protective and demanding of the budding star. In the film he is portrayed as a short-tempered klutz who would do anything to see his kids make the musical mark that he didn't achieve on his own. Some onlookers believe that Abraham, who served as the film's executive producer, wielded control over it as he did over Selena's life. "The guy has been so adamant about controlling the spin on this," says Joe Nick Patoski, a Texas Monthly writer and author of the acclaimed Selena: Como la Flor. "He's as manipulative as Joe Jackson ever was."
Quintanilla may wish his kids had had the success of the Jackson 5. But, he says, "I'm not a mean person. I'm just a father who was protecting his children in the music business, which is a vicious business." Moctesuma Esparza, who produced the film with Robert Katz, says Abraham was dogged but malleable. "He didn't want any mention of Yolanda, but we convinced him that the full arc of the story wasn't there without what happened at the end." Says director Nava: "One reason for doing the film was that the fans need catharsis, and if you don't show her death, you can't get that."
The whole family was involved, providing insights and details. Lopez, who gives a feisty, buoyant performance that could set her on a star path similar to the singer's, moved in with Selena's sister Suzette and got scolded by the singer's mother for bad eating habits. "She told me I was just like Selena"--a reproach that to Lopez was high praise. When Nava finished the script, he read it to the family. "They stopped us many times," Esparza says, "because they were crying so hard."
The elder Quintanilla confesses that "some days I can cope with it. Other times I have a knot in my throat all day long." He occasionally has dreams of Selena. In one, he sees her sleeping in her bedroom and then she suddenly wakes. "In the dream, I told her, 'We better let the media know you're not dead, because they'll think we played a hoax for the publicity.'"
Quintanilla is often shaken into silence by the ghost and the guilt. "Sometimes I feel like I'm to blame," he says. "Me and my wife were in bed talking about this the other night--that had we not chosen this path for our kids, Selena would still be alive." He also chose Saldivar to run the Selena fan club, after the woman had left more than a dozen insistent messages on his answering machine. "I actually feel sorry for her sometimes," says Abraham, who adds he believes Saldivar was demonically possessed at the time of the murder. "But Yolanda is not really in my mind. Selena is in my mind."
Selena is also in music stores; expect a surge in the sales of her eight albums, and of the soundtrack CD. And this week, with the release of this earnest little weepie, Selena may finally get to fulfill her crossover dream into the mainstream, that River Jordan for Latino musicians. Surely she and her family deserve some sort of Hollywood happy ending.