El Cantante

2007, Movie, R, 116 mins


Biopic cliches hamstring producer-star Jennifer Lopez's pet project, which purports to recount the rise and fall of pioneering salsa singer Hector Lavoe but devotes as much -- if not more -- screentime to his hellion wife.

The film begins in 2002, as a documentary crew prepares to interview Lavoe's widow, the prickly Nilda "Puchi" Perez (played by Lopez, whose aging makeup doesn't begin to make her look like she's in her sixties). Puchi's recollections trigger a flashback to 1985, when Puchi was forced to drag her drug-addicted husband (Mark Anthony, Lopez's real-life husband) out of a crack den in order to get him to a show. That was the end of the good times, Puchi muses, and then the film flashes back to 1963, as teenage Hector Perez and his father (Ismael Miranda) sing together on the streets of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Hector dreams of going to New York to pursue a singing career, but his father is dead-set against it — Hector's brother had gone to New York and became a drug addict. Hector goes anyway, and the film suggests that subsequent estrangement from his father unleashed the demons that later drove him to marathon drinking, whoring and drugging. Hector moves in with his sister Priscilla (Romi Dias), meets the hot-tempered Puchi, and begins performing with Willie Colon (John Ortiz) at the suggestion of a scout for Fania Records, an up-and-coming Latin label. People are tired of the same old sound, he tells Willie and Hector; they're ready for something that mixes jazz, meringue and samba into a kind of salsa. Their collaboration is a success, Hector signs with Fania, and his name is changed from Perez to the more exotic "Lavoe." And then it's purely a chronicle of a death foretold: Hector marries Puchi, splits with Willie and becomes successful beyond his wildest dreams, but his drug use escalates and his professional reputation suffers while his relentless womanizing fuels endless screaming fights with the volatile Puchi.

Veteran Cuban-born cowriter/codirector Leon Ichaso, whose credits include EL SUPER (1979), HENDRIX (2000) and PINERO (2001), seems like a strong match for material that echoes his own 1985 CROSSOVER DREAMS, which starred Ruben Blades, who as a young musician wrote the song "El Cantante" as a gift for Lavoe. But Ichaso never overcomes the film's great weakness: Though Anthony can put across Lavoe's charisma as a performer, he and Lopez fail to bring depth to Puchi and Hector as people. Their opacity makes it nearly impossible to sustain any kind of interest in their selfish, destructive, reckless behavior. In the film's black-and-white interview sequences, Puchi tempers her bitter memories of the bad times with more affectionate recollections of her "funny and corny" husband, but all we see is a cipher hell-bent on destroying himself and taking everyone he loves down with him. (In English and subtitled Spanish) leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh

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El Cantante
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Hector Lavoe El Cantante the Originals (The Originals: Piano/Vocal/Guitar Artist Songbook)
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