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Selena becomes more saint than singer

Anyone who was devoted to Tejano music superstar Selena while she was alive will cherish her resurrection in the movies.

Those of us who were barely aware of her career until after she was murdered in 1995 won't be particularly enlightened or thrilled by Gregory Nava's rhythmic eulogy titled Selena.

The unfamiliar masses don't get much more from Nava's film than we surmised from the news reports after her murder: Selena must have been a popular music star with a winning personality, and she died far too tragically and young, at the hand of someone she trusted. Nava doesn't dig any deeper than that, to clue us about what was happening behind that megawatt smile. Probably the devotion of her family and fans kept his hands tied.

Selena's father, Abraham Quintanilla, is listed as executive producer of Selena, which means the project wouldn't have happened unless he gave approval.

The singer's still-grieving fans apparently felt the same way, demanding that their saint be treated with total reverence. The result is a movie that contains a measure of charm, too many musical numbers, not enough conflict and every screen-bio cliche that Private Parts ingeniously avoided.

There's nothing wrong with a celebrity living a life that's tame and free of scandal, if that's the case with Selena Quintanilla Perez. That's something to be admired. Spreading that safe goodwill over 131 minutes of screen time is good canonization, and mostly dull cinema.

Selena begins on an electrifying note, at a 1995 concert that broke the Houston Astrodome attendance record, not long before her death. Jennifer Lopez (Money Train, Blood and Wine) is a close physical match for the late singer and does a solid job of lip-synching to Selena's recordings. The music (a medley of 1970s disco diva tunes) and Nava's camera quickly sweep us into the dizzying rush of celebrity before the film settles into standard biography procedure.

We watch as young Selena (Becky Lee Meza) surprises her father _ a failed musician himself _ with her voice. Edward James Olmos does a fine job with his fatherly duties, in a role that occasionally feels so righteous that you figure the real Abraham Quintanilla had final script approval. Olmos isn't asked to do much more than act concerned for his daughter's welfare and dote on the sidelines during a string of recreated accomplishments.

We see the inevitable scene of Selena's band hearing their No. 1 song on the radio for the first time and a Grammy awards triumph. Tour bus pranks are recalled, giving Lopez another chance to make her character look lovable. Any dramatic rhythm is thwarted (unless you already know the story, of course) by the inclusion of musical numbers that are fun, but the same effect could be achieved by listening to Selena's CDs.

Nava seems reluctant to break up this tribute with something as unsavory as Selena's murder. The introduction of Yolanda Saldivar (Lupe Ontiveros) as a personal assistant rings a foreboding bell for anyone who read the news reports. But Nava underplays her embezzlement of fan club dues, then segues into a cross-cut emergency room scenes and Saldivar's capture by police (including the film's sole ugly image). The horror of snuffing out such a vivacious life is ignored, diluting whatever drama the situation merits.

Selena is an honorable effort to preserve fond memories of a fallen hero, but it doesn't inform us about this magenetic personality as well as a documentary on the subject could. A closing montage of footage of the real Selena captures whatever it was that captured her fans' hearts. Nava's movie is just one more carefully arranged bouquet laid at her shrine.



Director: Gregory Nava

Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Edward James Olmos, Jon Seda, Constance Marie, Becky Lee Meza

Screenplay: Gregory Nava

Rating: PG; profanity, violence

Running time: 131 min.

Studio: Warner Bros.