Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was a famous Mexican-American singer from Texas who was famous for the Spanish-language music her family band made. Selena remains one of the most popular Spanish Language music artists who ever lived. Tragically, her life was cut short when she was murdered by Yolanda Saldivar, Selena’s fan club manager. Since her shocking death, her life story has been adapted into several films and stage musicals. I will be looking at the most famous of these: 1997’s Selena“.
I’ve chosen 1997’s Selena” specifically for two reasons. First, it’s the most famous telling of Selena’s life story. Second, because it’s an elegant and important movie; but is usually ignored from a production standpoint. People focus on the story of Selena, and ignore how the story was told. Yes, it’s important to view a biography with focus on the person; but it’s tragic that everyone ignores the production value. Many people put their hearts and souls into telling the story of this person’s life, and nobody acknowledges the effort of the storytellers, just the story itself. It’s like loving Harry Potter, but never hearing of J.K. Rowling. Artists matter. I want to acknowledge them.
Fair warning: Despite being murdered at 23, Selena had VERY intricate life. There’s a reason that an entire sub-genre of films exist just to document her. If something is omitted here, it’s not omitted out of ignorance, but rather a desire to keep this less than 300 pages long.
Selena Quintanilla was the third child of the Quintanilla family. Her father had them start a band: “Selena Y Los Dinos”, with their performances being the family’s main income source after their father’s employment ended. Over the years of her career, she blossomed from performing at carnivals to the most popular Spanish-language singer of all time. At the time, the Spanish-language scene was very different that what it is today. Most artists weren’t known at all outside of the Spanish community, and the field was dominated by men. Selena was the rise of the modern era. She was well known enough to start a boutique chain and several product lines. Eventually, her career culminated with a Grammy nomination, which she won. She later married Chris Pérez, a guitarist the band hired on. They were planning to have children.
Selena was in the process of recording an English-language crossover album when there were issues with her fan club manager, Yolanda Saldivar; as it had come up that Yolanda had been stealing from Selena. Selena met Yolanda at a hotel to resolve the issue peacefully. Yolanda murdered her in the hotel. Selena later died in one of the hospitals in Corpus Christi, Texas. Selena’s murder was one of the most shocking and horrifying events of the decade. Yolanda’s murder trial had the fame and coverage level of O.J. Simpson’s trial, ending with her being found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. She has received so many death threats from inmates and non-inmates, she has been living in solitary since her sentencing for her own safety.
Selena’s death left waves in the southwestern US and northern Mexico which continue to this day. Selena is still the most popular name for newborn girls in her native Texas, “including actress and singer Selena Gomez“. People Magazine released a special edition about her life when coverage began of her murder. This was the first edition of People Magazine to sell out and require reprinting. This awakened many media companies to the previously untargeted Spanish market, resulting in many modern brands such as People en Español. When you walk past the magazine section of a store and see the People en Español, it’s because of Selena. Coverage of her death was broadcasted as far as Germany, and the news of her death broke broadcast records. So many people made pilgrimages to pay their respects, it caused one of the largest traffic booms in Texas history. Memorial services were held on 3 continents. The cultural appreciation of Selena hasn’t dwindled with time. To this day, on the anniversaries of her death, companies such as Telemundo still show biographies of her. There is a holiday for her in her home state of Texas.
The cultural love of Selena is so strong, an entire genre of biographies has emerged to tell her life story. E! True Hollywood Story, The Biography Channel, and A&E Network have all released biographies of her. At least two stage musicals have been made about here life. There was also Corpus: A Home Movie About Selena, a documentary made entirely of real footage. Selena Remembered is also a noteworthy member. The most noteworthy member of this genre is 1997’s Selena. This version was so popular, it turned Jennifer Lopez into a celebrity. While all of these tellings of Selena’s life story have value, I will be looking at the 1997 version specifically.
Hair, Makeup, Wardrobe
Before I talk about the film’s makeup, I have to cover something about makeup in general. As any makeup artist or drag queen can tell you, there isn’t just makeup. Makeup is a varied art with many techniques. There’s prosthetic makeup, like the materials and techniques found in Star Trek. There’s non-prosthetic effect makeup, like the metal paste and green makeup in the Wizard Of Oz. There’s standard film makeup, stage makeup, corpse makeup, civilian makeup, and medical-component makeup. All of these have independent uses.
Selena‘s makeup was amazing because of how effectively and intricately it was done. Jennifer Lopez and Selena Quintanilla-Pérez actually don’t look very similar. They’re very distinct. However, in the film, they made Jennifer Lopez look so similar to Selena, they literally spliced in archive footage of Selena at concerts, and it looks like the rest of the movie. Here’s three pictures:
The one on the left is the real Selena. The one on the right is Jennifer Lopez. The one in the center is actually Jennifer Lopez playing Selena. This is how you know this is good effect makeup: If I hadn’t told you that was actually J. Lopez, you probably would have thought that was the real Selena.
The makeup is actually complex and multi-layered. In the famous scene in the Astrodome, we hit makeup-inception. We have Jennifer Lopez with non-prosthetic effect makeup to look like Selena, with film makeup to look correct on camera, with stage makeup for realism. Here’s a random frame. That’s three kinds of makeup for one scene. The one on the left is the real Selena at the concert, the one on the right is from the film:
This brings me to the costumes and hair. The hair is perfect. The costumes are so realistic, there’s actually an urban legend that the film just re-used real clothes owned by Selena. This isn’t entirely true. In the scene in the film where she receives her Grammy, that outfit is a replica. The real Selena was buried in the real outfit. The costumes are that realistic.
Film lighting is one of those things where you don’t notice it unless it’s REALLY GOOD or REALLY BAD. It’s kind of like camerawork in that respect. People notice the lighting in Selena because it’s fantastic. First, all of the lighting is appropriate to the mood. This is best shown in the scene where Selena’s father fires Chris, a few minutes before the scene where they elope. In this scene, you notice the use of blue-tinted fluorescent lighting, which makes everything seem unpleasant and dangerous. This works by drawing on the cliches of people being assaulted and drug deals going down in gas station parking lots and parking garages; which use the same kind of lighting.
But as this shot shows, Selena‘s lighting isn’t just good at setting mood. It’s also remarkably realistic. This pops up everywhere in the film. For example: there’s the scene where she performs near what appears to be the Alamo, which looks like it’s being shot outside with stage lights, when it’s set in an outdoor concert at night. It looks like real outdoor stage lights.
Acting and Casting
Selena‘s casting was flawless from a realism standpoint. Here’s a picture of the family from Selena; and a picture of the real Selena, her mother, and sister. Notice how it’s hard to tell the difference, especially in Suzette.
Most of the cast put in a VERY strong commitment to the film. Edward James Olmos claims to have gained 50 pounds to play Selena’s father, Abraham Quintanilla, Jr. Jackie Guerra, who played Suzette Quintanilla, learned to play the drums specifically for the film. Lupe Ontiveros did a perfect job playing Yolanda Saldivar’s unique brand of being a pathological-lying-sociopath. Her work was so realistic, she got death threats after playing the role.
Editing and Cinematography
Selena has a strong combination of editing and cinematography, but it’s subtle.
First, some background on aspect ratios. The aspect ratio is a film or show’s screen width vs its screen height. Most low definition stuff is in 4:3, or that of the old clunky tube TVs. Most high definition stuff is in 16:9, which is used in HDTVs and movie theaters. The most important editing/cinematography aspect of Selena is in the opening of the film. There’s a shot where Selena looks at her parents in 4:3, then a shot where her parents look back at her in 4:3, and then the camera goes back to her in 4:3, and the curtains open, turning the shot into a 16:9 shot. The film literally transitions from a standard definition aspect ratio into a high definition aspect ratio in the same shot, with props.
This may not seem like a big deal, but it actually is. First, there aren’t many films that blend aspect ratios at all. Second, transitioning between is extremely rare, and is almost entirely done with iMovie style swipes, the most notorious example being in Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World. Selena uses the scenery to transition between the aspect ratios. This sub-type of transition is so unique, there’s actually a film textbook that lists editing techniques, and the book calls this act “Selena Transitions”.
Second, Selena uses montage in a way that’s abnormal for Western cinema. Most Western films use montage to cut out the boring parts of a story, such as training montages, recovering from disease, or massive studying. Selena is different. Selena uses montage to show impact. Montages are used in concerts to show her impact on the audience. Montages are used to show maturing and learning, as shown in the scene where Selena’s mom teaches her daughter a dance from when she was young: “the washing machine”. Finally, a montage is used after Selena was shot. The montage is used to show how everyone was affected by Selena’s death. Selena doesn’t use Montage to skip or condense aspects of the story. Selena used montage to show the story. If you’re interested in learning more about montage, watch this fascinating video:
In summary, Selena Quintanilla-Pérez was an important person who influences us as a culture. Her biography, Selena, is an important film and tells the story well. It’s also important to acknowledge the craftsmanship of the people who told that story.