Review: 'Selena: The Series' : Pop Culture Happy Hour Selena Quintanilla was known as the "Queen Of Tejano Music," a major Latin star who was crossing over into the mainstream U.S. pop world when she was shot and killed in 1995. She was 23 years old. Her story spawned a 1997 movie starring Jennifer Lopez, as well as an 18-episode series streaming now on Netflix called Selena: The Series. Maria Garcia, the host and creator of the Anything For Selena podcast, joins us to talk about the legacy of Selena, who would have turned 50 years old this year.

Selena's Legacy Lives On, In 'Selena: The Series' And Beyond

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STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:

Selena Quintanilla was known as the queen of Tejano music, a major Latin star who was crossing over into the mainstream U.S. pop world when she was shot and killed in 1995. She was 23 years old. Her story spawned a 1997 movie starring Jennifer Lopez, as well as an 18-episode TV series streaming now on Netflix. It's called "Selena: The Series." I'm Stephen Thompson. And today, we are talking about "Selena: The Series" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.

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THOMPSON: Welcome back. Joining me today from El Paso, Texas, is Maria Garcia, managing editor at WBUR. She is also the host and creator of "Anything For Selena" from WBUR and Futuro Studios. Welcome, Maria.

MARIA GARCIA, BYLINE: Hi, Stephen. Thank you so much for having me.

THOMPSON: I am so glad we have you. So Selena would have turned 50 last month, which helps explain some of the resurgence in projects tied to the singer. But as I'm sure, Maria, you will attest, Selena's legacy has never faded. She's sold tens of millions of records. She's inspired generations of artists and helped keep Latin music firmly in the U.S. mainstream. Maria, you and I are going to get to "Selena: The Series" in a minute. But you have your own Selena-related project. Could you tell us a little bit about "Anything For Selena"?

GARCIA: Of course. Yeah. "Anything For Selena" is truly the culmination of my lifelong quest to understand why Selena and her legacy touched me and millions of other people so, so deeply. So it's a nine-episode narrative journey - 11 now if you count some bonus episodes that we've done - that really tries to do her legacy justice. We look at the birth of her symbolism, you know, how her face and her iconography has become a shorthand for an entire American identity, for Latinidad, what it looks like, feels like, sounds like to be Latino in this country.

We look at body politics, the legacy she had on beauty ideals in the U.S. We look at the cultural lineage, from the obsession with Salena's body to today's mainstreaming of big butts and how that sheds light on the fraught relationship between Latino identity and Blackness in the U.S. We look at the genre she was born out of, out of Tejano, and how Tejano sheds light on tension between assimilated Americans and new immigrants. We look at Latino fatherhood. I met her father, Abraham. And it touched me deeply and made me meditate on, you know, fatherhood in Latino communities. So it really is a journey that uses rigorous journalism, cultural analysis but, most of all, deeply personal, vulnerable storytelling to finally do her legacy justice.

THOMPSON: Yeah. Well, and you say finally do her legacy justice. I mean, there has been this movie in 1997 with J.Lo, which we can talk about. Also, you have this "Salena: The Series" now, which has been split into two nine-episode seasons on Netflix. The first dropped back in December. The second dropped on May 4. It's a dramatization of the singer's life starring Christian Serratos as Selena, Gabriel Chavarria as Selena's brother, A.B., Noemi Gonzalez as their sister, Suzette, and Ricardo Chavira as their father, Abraham. Maria, how do you think "Selena: The Series" does at kind of contextualizing Selena's legacy?

GARCIA: Yeah. Well, I mean, I thought Part 1 and Part 2 were quite distinct. And I interviewed the producers recently. And they told me, you know, that Part 1 was meant to show her family's struggle and the sacrifices that it took to make their dream come true. And then Part 2 was supposed to be Selena sort of coming into her own. And we definitely do see those distinctions from Part 1 to Part 2. But, Stephen, Selena had a sort of once-in-a-lifetime verve to her. She had a spunk. She had a personality and a spirit that was hard to forget. By all accounts, everybody who knew her say that when she walked into a room, as cliche as it sounds, I mean, she really did light it up.

And if we look at her rich, rich archive online right now, that is why we are still drawn to it. That's why there's 11 and 12 and 13-year-olds now who are editing her archive with, like, modern filters because even now, 26 years later after her death, her sort of generosity of spirit, her spunkiness, comes through from the screen. That is something that I wish would have been written more into her role for "Selena: The Series" - that we would have seen her high-spiritedness that we've come to know her for.

I think, you know, that the series does a great job at recreating some very iconic moments in Selena's life. The attention to detail - in Season 2, I was - there are some really tender moments. You know, when she goes to the Grammys, and she's sort of facing some self-doubt, and suddenly, she sees little Selena staring back at grown Selena, you know, that moment made my eyes water. You know, there was something so tender about that.

And there are these really tender moments throughout the series. And we do see in Part 2 a Selena that is struggling more with self-doubt. We see a Selena who is outgrowing her family as an artist, who is wrestling with the idea of going solo. This is somebody who was - for such a superstar, lived a really insulated life. All she knew was her family and music. And I think Part 2 does a better job of showing more internal conflict, a Selena that is more introspective, a Selena that faces more self-doubt, a Selena that goes deeper within herself. But there's still a lot of attention to the people around her.

THOMPSON: Yeah, I was really struck watching "Selena: The Series" at, first of all, the pitfalls of making music biopics and kind of biopics in general, where you are trying to sort of recreate the arc of a musician. And there are so many pitfalls where you're trying to restage iconic moments in ways that feel like you're kind of ticking boxes. You're doing a lot of kind of boilerplate, and it's very hard to transcend this. And I think watching "Selena: The Series" stretch her story out over the course of 18 episodes, it felt really weirdly shaped to me.

And I think that in some ways, like, the only thing worse than an unauthorized biopic is an authorized biopic. And I felt so much like I was watching kind of the heavy hand of the family and how the family wanted to package her legacy. And I don't envy them. For a hundred different reasons, I don't envy them having to do this. And so you wind up in - over the course of 18 roughly 40-minute episodes, they will absolutely fixate on, like, the making of this one jacket. But the family doesn't want to tell the story of her death, and so, like, suddenly, you're just, like, racing through this stuff that isn't even a factor in the storytelling.

I found this show very, very frustrating. And frankly, Maria, not to pander to my guest, but I really found myself like, you know what I want? I want "Anything For Selena," not "Selena: The Series." I want somebody's personal reflections on how she fits into the culture, and I'm not sure the family has the distance necessary to do that.

GARCIA: Well, first of all, wow, thank you so much for that (laughter). There will always be a tension between the desire and the hunger from fans for a more introspective, for a more complicated, for a more human Selena and the desire from her family to present their daughter, their sister, as they knew her. And there is a tension of ownership between the family's stewardship of her image and what some fans are calling for. And that is a tension that will always, always exist in Selena's legacy. And I think we see that. We see that tension in the series.

And, you know, I just like to say that even though there are pitfalls to authorized biographies, you know, when we look at, for example, Selena's 1997 biopic with Jennifer Lopez - last year, when Season 1 of "Selena: The Series" came out, there were many people who said this role is not written like it was written for Selena. This character is mousy. She's quiet. She's meek. She's sort of a shadow to her manager father and her songwriting brother, which is not what Selena was. And there were people who were saying, well, but nobody can quite play Selena the way she was. And I'm like, where were you in 1997?

(LAUGHTER)

GARCIA: I mean, did you see J.Lo's performance? To me, like, J.Lo's performance in 1997 is one of her best. I mean, she captured even the mannerisms, the way she spoke, the way she joked, her big, boisterous laugh. There was something about J.Lo's performance that really captured Selena's humanity. And so it can be done.

THOMPSON: Right.

GARCIA: But, you know, there were moments that felt, for sure, gratuitous in the series that were clearly there also for the super fans...

THOMPSON: Right.

GARCIA: ...Who consume all of the Selena details, who know that she had a fresh water tank as a bed frame, you know?

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

GARCIA: And you see that in the series. But no, I know what you mean about these pitfalls, and I do think we saw some of them in the series.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And I think that, you know, one criticism that I've seen of "Selena: The Series" is that it's, quote-unquote, kind of "focusing too much" on her family, on her bandmates, and, you know, that it's very, very heavy on narratives about her sister and her brother and her father and that people want to see Selena. And I don't necessarily agree with that.

I do think there was some interesting stuff in there about the pitfalls of trying to do everything yourself, the pitfalls of rising up through the music industry without having a machine behind you. To me, it was so interesting. Like, I'm watching so many episodes, particularly in the second season, where I'm like, why doesn't she hire a personal assistant? Who at that level of fame doesn't have a personal assistant? Why is she trying to do everything herself? I think some of that stuff was interesting.

I think where this show really, really falls down for me, though, is I felt like I wasn't getting to know Selena. I had a much better grasp on what the internal conflicts were for her sister and her brother and her father than I did for her, and I felt like she felt very kind of opaque and unknowable. And it really felt like I was getting a secondhand view of who she was as a family member. And it was sort of like, well, she spread herself too thin. And so they just kind of beat that drum over and over again.

At times, you know, when she's having conflicts with her father - you know, she's in a relationship secretly with a member of her band, with her guitarist, and she's keeping it from her family. And this is playing out, and I'm just - I'm shouting at the screen on Selena's behalf, like, hey, you hypocrites, let her have this relationship. You have your relationship. Let her have hers.

And yet I never really got a sense of, like, Selena's point of view. I felt like I was getting her family's point of view on everything. And it's where I kept coming back to that point of, like, this is one of the huge downsides of having the family involved in telling the story, is you're just kind of getting their side of it over and over and over again.

GARCIA: Yeah. There's this one scene in the second part of "Selena: The Series" when A.B. and Abraham are talking, and Abraham tells his son, you know, even though your sister is grown...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SELENA: THE SERIES")

RICARDO CHAVIRA: (As Abraham Quintanilla) She will always need us, no matter how grown up. Your sister is smart, confident - also naive, too trusting. We have to keep an eye out for her, even when she thinks we don't.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Play it again.

GARCIA: It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Abraham where he told me, you know, one of the things that bugged me so much about Selena is that she walked through the world with such an open heart, which is the antithesis of how he walks in the world. He is a guarded person. So it's very clear to me that, yes, the narratives, the tension points in the series, are completely informed by the family's telling of this moment in their daughter's life. And it's very clear that the makers of the series made an attempt to show a Selena that was more in conflict with herself than the Selena in the first part - you know, somebody who had self-doubt, again, about outgrowing her family, about whether eloping was the right choice. And there were moments in the series where it's very clear that that is what they are trying to do.

The hardest part about meditating on, about exploring Selena's legacy is that even with such a rich archive, we simply don't have a lot of material to understand what Selena's internal life was like. Even though she had such a boisterous and ferocious personality, there aren't a whole lot of recorded moments of deep, deep vulnerability. And so what we have is her family sort of driving the narrative from their viewpoint. But even if they had the most intimate knowledge of her, it's still a limited viewpoint, right? The parts of me that my father and my mother activate are not the same parts of me that my closest friends or my partner activate in me. We all have different contours to our personalities and our existence. And the hardest part is knowing that we will never hear it from her.

THOMPSON: Right.

GARCIA: You know, and we will never truly know what it was like for her to be Abraham's daughter, to be A.B.'s sister, to be on the cusp of outgrowing that space under her father's wing. You know, I genuinely believe that Selena, before she was killed, she was right at that stage, you know, kind of like when Beyonce, at the beginning of her career, was under her father's management, under her father's wing, and then became a different iteration of the kind of artist she was. I believe that Selena was on the cusp of that. And there's been many attempts to capture what it was like for her deep inside. And some missed the mark.

THOMPSON: Yeah. And, I think, unbalanced, for me, as a piece of storytelling, "Selena: The Series" missed the mark. I think, as you allude to, it is a very, very tough challenge to capture who she was as an artist and where she was going as an artist. And so much of her story is this tragedy of she was 23 when she died. She left behind a limited body of work. She was still coming into her own as an artist and as a human. And that's so much of the sadness around her. She can't help but be kind of an ethereal figure. And that becomes a huge storytelling challenge that I don't think this show is able to overcome just through a general sense of kind of narrative shapelessness and a kind of laggy (ph) pace. And I found it very frustrating watching it.

Like, there is a story here. There is a powerful presence at the center of this story. But the whole nature of the story is built around her absence. And I think that's a very, very hard thing to overcome. You obviously - you've been steeped in the music of Selena for your whole life. And obviously, she's very, very important to you. For people who are listening who know Selena maybe from the J.Lo movie, maybe from a song here and there but aren't necessarily steeped in her work, can you give us a Selena entry point, a recommendation for where people you think should begin with Selena's work?

GARCIA: You know, I think that "I Could Fall In Love" is a song where you really hear the power of her voice and the power to emote.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I COULD FALL IN LOVE")

SELENA: (Singing) Because I could take you in my arms and never let go. I could fall in love - in love - with you...

GARCIA: One of the things about Selena is that she had this incredible musicality, this ability to embody the music. You got the sense when you saw her that the music was emanating from her body. And she could go from, you know, big mariachi diva to sultry R&B in a blink of an eye. She just had that kind of American pop diva range. And I think "I Could Fall In Love" is a great entry point because then you reverse engineer. And you go back. And you see how she got there. And I will say that even though the series, you know, fell prey to some of these pitfalls, as you mentioned, there were moments watching it where I was deeply touched. And maybe that's because I have been deep in the Selena universe.

THOMPSON: (Laughter).

GARCIA: And she means so, so much to me. But there were moments where I think, wow, 26 years later and this woman, who simply did not compromise who she was, who didn't hide her identity at a time when Mexican American identity was so derided - it was a point of pride for her simply by not hiding, simply by not wilting when the world made women like her wilt. Here we are still enamored with her legacy and who she was. You know, I still wept at the end of Part 2.

THOMPSON: Well, I have to say, a lot of people are watching "Selena: The Series." Twitter was trending this morning talking about that scene where she meets a young Beyonce. I rolled my eyes and then looked it up. And apparently, it actually happened (laughter).

GARCIA: Yeah. It did happen Yeah. Beyonce has talked about it. Yeah, for sure.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: So yeah, there is a lot more to discuss about Selena. We want to know what you think about Netflix's "Selena: The Series." Heck, we want to know what you think about the J.Lo movie and her discography in general. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much, Maria, for being here.

GARCIA: Thank you so much, Stephen. Thank you for having me.

THOMPSON: And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. And we'll see you all right back here tomorrow, when we will be talking about "The Nanny."

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