In El Cantante, salsa finds a voice | Film Review | Indy Week
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In El Cantante, salsa finds a voice 

America's Latin music form gets its biopic

After this review went to press, El Cantante's distributor cancelled the film's opening this weekend in the Triangle. No information has been given about when the movie will open locally.

click to enlarge Onscreen sizzle: Nilda Perez (Jennifer Lopez) and famed salsa singer Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthony) navigate a lusty yet complex marriage. - PHOTO BY ERIC LIEBOWITZ/ PICTUREHOUSE

There's a lot riding on El Cantante, the biopic starring Marc Anthony as the '70s salsa singer Hector Lavoe and Jennifer Lopez as his wife Nilda "Puchi" Perez. It's the first fruit of the Puerto Rican power couple's marriage, and the first mainstream Hollywood movie to be made about Lavoe, a natural talent and beloved performer known as "The Voice" whose notorious heroin addiction led to his death of AIDS in 1993.

The time is right for a teaching moment about salsa—the Latin music born on American soil—since Fania Records' new proprietor Emusica is currently remastering its entire catalog, including Lavoe's original salsa albums. As cinematic entertainment, the film could be best described as a romantic tragedy—a sequel to Lopez's history of starring in romantic comedies since her acting debut in the musician biopic Selena. Unlike that critical success (or the more recent Ray and Walk the Line), this film doesn't cling closely enough to the biopic formula for its own good. Other than a brief scene with Lavoe's father, there are no formative scenes from his childhood to serve as prophesies or leitmotifs, surely a staple of the genre.

Where the movie stumbles is in its ambition to tell too many stories at once. Besides trying to the tell the tale of New York's Fania Records, salsa's equivalent of Motown, and be a biopic of its greatest superstar and tragic figure, it's a melodrama about the relationship of Hector and Puchi, his enamored and equally tragic wife, who provides the film's narrative frame in flashback.

Biopic viewers should have no trouble buying into a flashback narrator, but Puchi's point of view clearly limits what the film can do. El Cantante ends up being one movie about Hector Lavoe, not the movie, and much criticism of the film stems from its hamstrung view of a figure sacrosanct to salsa's faithful.

Another critique stems from the portrayal of Lavoe's intravenous drug use. While the "warts and all" approach doesn't necessarily condemn a biopic—especially a musician biopic—to trading in negative stereotypes, the film's lack of a coherent formula will mean viewers take away this inescapable fact, if nothing else.

The salsa story is not watered down, but it does come off a little jumbled. For example, the plot has Hector singing "Aguanile," one of his hits with Willie Colon, at a time in the mid-'70s when he was already performing with his own group. Music history gets more time in some years than others, and a sudden leap of seven years (at the peak of Hector's solo career) seems timed to move things along to the personal tragedies. Secondary characters representing key players in the Fania legacy seem like placeholders, from the talking head Willie Colon (Lavoe's first bandleader), to a mainly visual Johnny Pacheco (Fania producer and impresario), to a dancer who is the spitting image of Roberto Roena as he appeared in a famous '70s salsa documentary.

El Cantante does a good job of translating the movement, sense of freedom and countercultural excitement of salsa in its heyday into a modern visual idiom. The dance sequences aren't overly staged—in this era of ballroom dancing reality shows—nor is the nightlife sanitized. If anything, the decadence of the band's afterparties and backstage drug use are part of the film's visual and musical rhythm. The film's hyperactive editing makes it hard to appreciate the array of famous guests, but among the most visible cameos are original members of Lavoe's band, percussionists Eddie Montalvo and Jose Mangual Jr., who appear in non-speaking roles as totems of authenticity. Fellow-Fania cantante Ismael Miranda plays Lavoe's father, a sentimental choice that will resonate with fans.

Anthony is a vocalist of comparable stature to Lavoe, but considerably different taste. Anthony's own craftsmanship is impeccable, but he is more of a Frank Sinatra to Lavoe's folk poet. For the role, he reportedly committed to recreating Lavoe's phrasing, and his performance results not in uncanny mimickry, a la Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles, but something akin to Joaquin Phoenix's Johnny Cash: A loyal interpretation that is interesting to listen to and to watch.

There's no denying the onscreen chemistry between Anthony and Lopez, who revel in their share of sex scenes and tender moments. But trying to make Lavoe's marriage echo that of the modern power couple only works for the "good times," when the money, the bliss and the wild parties are on tap. The story loses its North Star as the domestic difficulties and tragedies pile up.

Ultimately, we pity Puchi, but we don't really identify with her—as a narrator, she's too defensive, too inconsistent. She tells us more things about Lavoe than the film shows us—that Lavoe reached worldwide stardom and that he was a Puerto Rican country boy with incisive motherwit (the script paints him more as a bland naif).

As a biopic, El Cantante plays like Lady Sings the Blues, not least of which because a glamorous pop singer (in the earlier film, Diana Ross) somewhat incongruously finds a star vehicle in the tragedy of an authentic artist with a drug habit. Lavoe comes off as the suffering modern superstar whose personal pain can truly be understood by no one; all the melodrama in his personal life never gels into transcendence.

At the end of El Cantante, the unanswered question remains: Who was Hector Lavoe? The whole truth may be left to future films, but there's an undeniable thrill to seeing Anthony take the stage as his reincarnation. And the formidable soundtrack may be El Cantante's greatest legacy if it leads English-speaking fans to discover Lavoe's music.

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