May 17, 2020

SELENA and a Cultural Awakening
SELENA (1997)
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Constance Marie, Jon Seda, Lupe Ontiveros, Jacob Vargas. Directed by Gregory Nava. (128/134 min)

Review by Stinky the Destroyer😸

I remember when Selena died. It was all over the news for about a day, after which I went on with my life without giving her another thought. Of course it’s tragic when anyone so young is senselessly murdered, but it ain’t like she was a cultural icon like John Lennon...or even Kurt Cobain.

Then Hollywood made a movie about her. Pretty quickly, actually, considering Selena was written, cast, produced and released less than two years after her death. But even though I’ve always enjoyed a good music bio, no way was she already a legend (we waited 28 years for Richie Valens' life story). The movie sounded like a cynical cash-grab to me, so I took a pass.

But that was 30-year-old me talking. More specifically, the 30-year-old white me. To be even more exact, the 30-year-old white me whose definition of popular culture was shaped by his environment. It took a career change for me to stop sniffing my own farts.

In 1997, I was earning a degree in education and did my student teaching at Sunnyside High School in a rural community that was roughly 60% Hispanic. Not only was it the first time I’d been in a public classroom in 20 years, it was the first time I’d been around large groups of teenagers since the days I was one. And without a doubt, it was the only time I ever found myself being the whitest guy in the room.

Selena and the Dinos learn they lost the talent show to a kid who squirts milk out his nose.
Student teaching was pretty interesting. In addition to English – my actual major - I was also afforded the opportunity to create curriculum and teach a class called Media Studies, which focused on the impact of television, advertising, music and cinema on modern culture. For the music unit, I chose a few films about some of rock music’s biggest legends to show their lasting influence on popular music. but the class was largely unimpressed and even The Beatles were just four funny-looking British blokes from “The Hippy Days.”

Dumbass teenagers. To my dismay, they made it clear that everything which existed before they were born – including me – was from The Hippy Days. With hindsight, I should’ve taken a clue on my first day of class, when one kid asked if I fought in Vietnam. That’s right, and a troop of fellow toddlers took Hamburger Hill back in ‘69.

However, I think this also when it slowly dawned on me that my definition of popular culture may also be from The Hippy Days.

"Well, what music is important to you?” I finally asked the class. “Nirvana?” (a few nods and shrugs). “Tupac?” (which I pronounced, Tu-pack, triggering a tidal wave of laughter at my expense).

"Can we watch the Selena movie?” one girl asked, which got a chorus of approval from a majority of her classmates.

Selena? Showing that movie never occurred to me. Why would it? Even at the advanced age of 33, I knew Tejano music’s cultural impact was negligible. Still, since I had already scrapped plans to enlighten them on the importance of the punk rock movement, I relented and picked up a copy of the film at my local video store.

There’s an old saying that “good teachers never stop learning.” If that’s true, the first lesson of my new career came the day we watched Selena in class. The film opens with her performing before 67,000 people at the Houston Astrodome, bigger than any crowd who paid to see those funny-looking British blokes at the height of their popularity. Afterwards, the story focuses on Selena’s upbringing, blossoming career and meteoric rise to stardom. Played as an adult by Jennifer Lopez, she not-only packed arenas, won Grammys and sold a shit-ton of records, her image was so popular that she opened a chain of namesake boutiques which sold Selena-inspired clothing. Funny...I don’t recall ever seeing any Nirvana shops...not even in Seattle.

"Hey, 'Balls to the Wall!' That's my jam!"
Selena was never mistaken for a complex, dirt-filled tell-all. Anchored by a star-making performance from Lopez, the film plays more like an engaging, affectionate eulogy celebrating the singer’s life, talent and oh-so-brief moment in the sun, its sunny tone only changing during the inevitable conclusion. But even then, the circumstances surrounding her murder are only briefly touched upon and the incident itself is - mercifully - not shown. The result is a coda that’s arguably more poignant than tragically downbeat.

Of course, Selena is also filled with music - from traditional Tejano to modern pop – which a lot of the students in class knew by heart. A few sang along during the concert scenes and many more were sniffing-back tears by the time the movie was over. Ultimately, I learned something you don’t pick up in a college course: Cultural importance is relative. If nothing else, the film made me appreciate just how popular and influential Selena Quintanilla was to an entire culture and generation...right under my nose. So my initial assessment of her worth was woefully ignorant. She was indeed as iconic as Kurt Cobain, her murder as tragic as John Lennon’s.

And like other phenoms taken away too soon, Selena’s music and image remains relevant today. I’ve been teaching for over twenty years and still see many of my Hispanic kids – who weren’t even alive when she was killed - keeping the torch burning with Selena t-shirts they buy at Forever 21, or listening to her music on their phones when they think I’m not paying attention. It’s a tribute to her cultural legacy no different from the Steve McQueen t-shirt I sometimes throw-on for casual Friday (though none of my students know who the fuck he is).

In the end, Selena isn’t a revealing biography, but its subject is insanely likable and her story is mostly upbeat and entertaining. Additionally, it’s impossible to walk away without respecting the long-lasting impact she had on Tejano music and the legions of fans who loved her.

"SELENA: QUEEN OF TEJANO” - Selena’s surviving family members discuss her life, career and influence.
"MAKING OF SELENA” 10 YEARS LATER” - Retrospective documentary featuring Lopez, Edward James Olmos (who plays Selena’s father/manager), writer/director Gregory Nava.

No comments: