It’s been 20 years since the movie Selena brought Selena Quintanilla’s short life and her songs to the screen, proving the box office draw of the story of a young Latina woman, as well as demonstrating, once again, a global audience’s enthusiasm for Latin music. But despite the Selena phenomenon, few Hollywood movies have focused on Latin music’s legends.
There were notable precedents: La Bamba, the story of Ritchie Valens with music recorded by Los Lobos, came out in 1987, 10 years before Selena.
The fictionalized The Mambo Kings premiered in 1992. The movie was not a biopic, but it was a love song to Machito, Perez Prado, Celia Cruz, Desi Arnaz and other pioneers who brought the Cuban sound to the States.
In the years since Selena, international independent filmmakers have paid tribute to legendary artists in their native countries, including Camarón de la Isla (Jaime Chavarri’s 2005 Camarón) and Violeta Parra (Andrés Wood’s 2011 Sundance World Cinema Prize winner Violeta Se Fue a los Cielos). El Benny, a Benny Moré biopic directed by Jorge Luis Sánchez, premiered at the Havana film festival in 2006. In 1993, Marcelo Piñeyro, who later became known for Plata Quemada and Kamchatkca, directed Tango Feroz, based on the life of Argentine rocker Tanguito. Those films are not just for fans. Beyond the attraction of the music, they are films that are compelling as social portraits twentieth-century Latin America and Spain.
HBO premiered For Love or Country, the story of Arturo Sandoval back in 2000.
But more recently (and you wonder why it wasn’t sooner), Spanish-language networks have found a niche producing musical biopics of Latin artists for an audience that logically embraces them. Hasta Que Conocí a 16-episode telenovela based on the life of the Mexican pop legend Juan Gabriel, aired on Telemundo in the U.S., attracting three million viewers for the series premiere. In Mexico, the final episode aired the night of the singer’s death, on Aug. 28 of last year.
In 2015, Telemundo mined the fertile life of Celia Cruz (sorely neglected by Hollywood) with an 80-part “super series.” Univision premiered the Jenni Rivera biopic series Su Nombre Era Dolores, La Jenni Que Yo Conocí, which was opposed by members of the Rivera family, this past January. Telemundo has countered with its own “official” Rivera bio series, La Mariposa de Barrio, which is currently in production.
Now going full throttle with biopics of Latin music stars, Telemundo also recently announced the production of Nace un Idolo, a series that tells the story of another popular Mexican singer, José José; and El Ganador, about current urban hitmaker Nicky Jam.