The ‘Selena’ Movie Is a Classic, But 20 Years Ago Film Critics Gave it Mixed Reviews

Lead Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros
Courtesy of Warner Bros
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The film that made Jennifer Lopez a star and further enshrined Selena Quintanilla in our hearts turns 20 this year. Selena opened in more than 1,000 movie theaters on March 21st, 1997 and quickly became a hit with many who’d grown to love the Queen of Tejano music. Directed by Gregory Nava, the biopic of the Mexican-American singer was eagerly anticipated. The audition for the role of Selena alone became the second largest since the search for Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind back in 1939.

In its opening weekend, Selena was the number two film in the United States, grossing a total of $11,615,722 domestically, and went on to make  $35,281,794. It stands as one of the most successful musical biopics of all time. The runaway hit went on to earn a Golden Globe nomination for Lopez, four ALMA awards, a Grammy award for its killer soundtrack, and endless new fans for the “Como la flor” singer.

We combed through the first handful of reviews of Nava’s film and well, despite the fact that they were mostly written by men who don’t seem to have had any inkling of who Selena was beyond what they heard on the news following her murder, it’s clear that Lopez’s performance and the movie’s music were being singled out as the best parts of the film. Check out some select quotes from film critics written back in 1997.

Chicago Sun-Times

Selena succeeds, through Lopez’s performance, in evoking the magic of a sweet and talented young woman. And, like Nava’s “My Family,” it’s insightful in portraying Mexican-American culture as a rich resource with its own flavor and character. It’s ironic that the most successful modern Latina singer could once have had a talk with her dad where he sighed, ‘You like Donna Summer, I like doo-wop.’ But he also said, ‘You gotta be who you are.’ She was.” — Roger Ebert

New York Times

“The movie is so insistently nice that it refuses to show the star’s murder. (She was shot in the back.) All we see are the survivors’ tears. Maybe that’s appropriate in a movie that treats its central character as a saint, for by the end of the film, Selena has been all but canonized.” — Stephen Holden

Washington Post

“The film’s many musical scenes can be riveting. But “Selena” is less concert film than family drama, particularly focusing on Selena’s struggles with her father after she falls in love with, and eventually marries, her guitarist Chris Perez (heartthrob Jon Seda). Their delicate, halting relationship is charmingly outlined, and there are genuine sparks between Lopez and Seda, who seem giddy and clumsy in ways totally appropriate to their youth.” — Richard Harrington

The Hollywood Reporter

“What makes this movie work is Jennifer Lopez’s electric performance as Selena, capturing the charismatic aspects of Selena’s stage persona and the essence of her maturity as a growing woman. Olmos is particularly powerful as her ambitious father; he conveys both the strength of determination as well as the underside to ambition.” — Duane Byrge


“Although Nava’s screenplay hits the subject of every scene right on the head and doesn’t ask for much subtlety or subtext, Lopez is wonderful to watch in the dramatic sequences as well as in the numerous musical interludes. Crucially, she is utterly convincing as a star-to-be, a rare golden personality, just as it is believable that she could be attracted to the rebellious guitarist in response to her manipulative and constantly hovering father.” — Todd McCarthy

Rolling Stone

“Missing is a sense of the interior life behind the smiling face that Selena showed the world. What of the drive that led her to music? What comfort did she find in it? What pain? In one scene at a concert in Mexico, the crowd nearly crushes the stage on which Selena and her band are playing. Lopez is allowed to show a flash of fear, a recognizable human emotion. Nava has said that Selena is meant to be “life affirming.” How can it be when life — the vital mess of it — is what this misguided elegy leaves out?” — Peter Travers

Los Angeles Times

“In the tradition of Lady Sings the Blues, The Rose, What’s Love Got to Do With It and other sudsy tales of singers and their woes, “Selena” is in part a completely predictable Latino soap opera that should satisfy those who complain they aren’t making movies like they used to.” — Kenneth Turan