‘Selena: The Series’ Captures the Rhythm of the Tejano Singer’s Early Years Without Digging Deep

The challenge when retelling the story of a music icon is that some figures have reached such a saintly, mythical status that few filmmakers or showrunners dare go beyond the image. “Selena: The Series” does such a lighthearted, even pious, angle on the personality of Tejano pathbreaker Selena Quintanilla that she nearly becomes a supporting role. Selena is one of those artists whose immense talent takes on a great, tragic air since she died so young, murdered at the age of 23 in 1995. Forget that she’s the selling point and the series becomes more enjoyable as a soapy family adventure. Divided into two parts, “Selena” first charts the rise of the Quintanilla family as a band finding any viable path towards success. 

“Part One” opens in the 1980s when Abraham Quintanilla (Ricardo Chavira), a former musician, struggles to keep his family afloat as their restaurant suffers under Reaganomics in Corpus Christi, Texas. Fans of this story know the rest. One day he hears his 8-year-old daughter Selena (first played by Madison Taylor Baez) crooning and decides to form a band with her on vocals and her older siblings, A.B. and Suzette on bass and drums respectively. They try out birthday parties, restaurants, small clubs and other venues and a few years later, an older Selena (Christian Serratos), A.B. (Gabriel Chavarria) and Suzette (Noemi Gonzalez), are finding their stride as Selena y Los Dinos. Their key genre is Tejano, that unique blend of Mexican, European and U.S. music styles at the time more relegated to the southwest. Abraham is always dreaming big and runs the family like a military unit, even when they recruit new band members and begin to gain notice. Selena never knows what going to high school is even as she finishes via mail. Life is mostly spent first in the family van and then in an old bus Abraham purchases to tour. With the potential for record deals and finally hitting it big looming, life for the Quintanilla clan can only get more complicated.

Until now the best known rendition of Selena’s life on screen has been the 1997 movie “Selena,” which proved to be Jennifer Lopez’s big breakthrough in the title role. That film hasn’t aged a bit with its energetic direction by Gregory Nava, back then a pioneering Mexican-American filmmaker. “Selena: The Series” takes most of the highlights the movie made so famous and drops them into an expanded show that’s more about a family working mercilessly hard to reach success. While the creator is Moisés Zamora and director Hiromi Kamata, overseeing the production is the Quintanilla estate. As with “Bohemian Rhapsody,” you can’t expect much in-depth probing when the very subjects are in charge of the interpretation. Yet, what’s surprising is how easy the show takes it on Selena but not on the Quintanilla men. Patriarch Abraham is played by Ricardo Chavira (who looks more like the real person but lacks Edward James Olmos’s blistering temper) as an overachieving father too proud and ambitious to enjoy anything. When the family goes on food stamps in the late ‘80s he makes the kids purchase groceries, and when the band needs makeshift lights, he makes young A.B. dive into a dumpster to snatch old peach cans to craft them. Abraham forbids drinking or smoking in the band (no mention is made of the Quintanillas being Jehovah’s Witnesses) and could care less when A.B. has a wife and daughter waiting at home. He needs him to write hits. 

On a purely entertaining level “Selena: The Series” is a fun take on how creative lives become consumed by their work. The Quintanillas have little time for anything recreational and spend most of their existence on the road. A.B. comes more into the forefront as the family songwriter constantly under pressure to compose new material. Anyone who has ever been part of any creative endeavor will recognize scenes where he’s trying to juggle family time with his wife and kid while tinkering away on a miniature keyboard. Some of the best parts of the show are about the record business and songwriting world. Abraham stands his ground with executives like EMI’s Jose Behar (Rico Aragon), who want to refashion Selena’s image and knock out Los Dinos from the album titles. While Abraham manages the group, the scenes involving the musicians at work have a refreshingly mature way of exploring how songwriting is not some breezy, easy hobby. It’s worst when the pressure is on and A.B. has to be tuned into any word or idea that could spark the muse.

All these elements can make one wonder if calling this show “Selena: The Series” is not simple commercial cynicism. There’s more in common here with collective band movies like “The Temptations” or “That Thing You Do.” It’s such a group story the series captures quite well the dynamics of being in a Latino family, where you’re not kicked out of the house at 18 and everyone is involved in their siblings’ business. This is also a unique depiction of borderland Latino culture, where being Mexican-American is its own identity. One of the great ironies of Selena’s success as a Spanish-language artist is that she had to actually learn Spanish and never quite lost the accent of a “pocho” or non-native speaker. She practically begs to get a chance to record an English album, because at heart her true loves are Janet Jackson and Madonna. The main flaw in the writing is that Selena as a character in this show never rises above sainthood. She’s even more of a walking pop daydream here than in Jennifer Lopez’s depiction. 

Christian Serratos is vivacious and has a magnificent presence, but at the same time her Selena always speaks like a corny diary entry, forever expressing her dreams and seeming to float over everyone else’s problems. At times the directing overdoes it, like an early scene of Los Dinos performing in a club as a young Mexican girl selling illuminated roses stares from a doorway as if Selena were a divine apparition. Selena’s mother and Abraham’s wife, Marcella (Seidy Lopez), is equally never given much room to be anything other than decoration. She’s the quiet, all-understanding mother who tries to calm Abraham’s tempers. But we never learn much about her, except that in 1963 she fell for Abraham because he had a red convertible and always strived to want more. Yet credit must be given for Netflix putting out a show about Mexican-Americans devoid of drug lords or biker gangs.

If Selena has any kinks in the armor they finally appear in the final episodes of “Part One” when she falls for guitarist Chris Perez (Jesse Posey). The show follows their forbidden romance beat for beat as in the 1997 movie. He’s the long-haired rocker A.B. hires but who Abraham sniffs out as trouble. With added space as a TV show, there’s more of a build-up as Selena and Chris feel the stress of keeping their relationship secret while on the road, forced to communicate in code during gigs. Zamora and Kamata remain loyal to pop myth and keep intact the moment where Abraham shouts Chris down on the tour bus, turning his daughter’s love into a Tejano Romeo and Juliet crisis. Too bad Jesse Posey looks more like a telenovela audition. A darker edge also falls into the final episode for those who know this story when Abraham hires someone to run Selena’s fan club that will have dire consequences later.

But of course, there’s the music. While the soundtrack is brimming with Selena staples like “Como La Flor” (which opens the show in a scene that’s almost religious in tone) and “I Could Fall in Love,” the early years are captured with little known gems like the band’s Spanish version of “Sukiyaki.” Concert scenes are shot with an intimate style that also mixes a vintage VHS look to give the illusion we’re watching performances captured in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. The music forms part of the show’s curious imbalances. The band’s sections feel like a serious music docudrama, Selena’s portions play like a daytime Latino soap opera, and through it all the songs beat everything else. Selena died much too young, but she left behind a catalogue combining everything from Tejano to Madonna-inspired pop. Those songs and their romantic imagery will far outlast this show, even though it has its fleeting charms.

Selena: The Series” part one begins streaming Dec. 4 on Netflix.