'Selena' Turns 20: How Did Reviewers in '97 Rate Jennifer Lopez-Headlined Biopic?

Nick Schager
Jennifer Lopez in 'Selena'
Jennifer Lopez in ‘Selena’ (Warner Bros)

Jennifer Lopez’s big movie breakthrough came in Gregory Nava’s 1997 biopic Selena, about the Queen of Tejano music, Selena Quintanilla, whose life tragically was cut short in 1995 at age 23 when her former fan-club president shot and killed her. Although the film only grossed $35 million at the domestic box office, it launched Lopez’s superstar career and proved a stirring celebration of a Mexican-American artist whose influence reaches throughout pop music. But what did movie critics think upon its initial domestic release? As our flashback rundown proves, even when reviewers felt this cinematic tribute was lacking in complexity, they were wowed by the performance of its newcomer lead actress, herself a star in the making.

Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times
“Selena brings freshness and heart to the life story of a little girl from Corpus Christi, Texas, who had big dreams and was lucky enough to realize almost all of them before her life was cut short…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.”

Todd McCarthy, Variety
“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.”

Duane Byrge, 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.”

Lisa Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly
“Nava concentrates instead on trying to communicate the colorful Latino-style excitement and adoration that propelled Selena’s performances, and to highlight the music itself. When this works — when Lopez is shaking her booty in the star’s signature sequined bustiers, doing that thing she did — then Selena becomes a nice enough concert film, not unpleasantly gussied up with corny mood shots (flowers bursting, moon shining, the works) and dialogue to match.”

Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“Jennifer Lopez excels as Selena, the Tejano singing sensation from south Texas who was shot and killed in 1995 at age 23 by Yolanda Saldivar, the president of her fan club…What a shame, then, that Nava’s script strands her in such dramatically shallow waters…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?”

Stephen Holden, The New York Times
“On its own good-natured terms, Selena is both pleasant to watch and instructive in familiarizing a movie audience with the Texan-Mexican borderland music known as Tejano… It is when Selena settles in to telling the story of the star’s rise and sudden death at the hands of Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros), the fan-club president whom the singer had accused of embezzlement, that the movie turns perfunctory and vague.”