Judge Daniel MacDonald likes his salsa spicy.
Based on the true story of the King of Salsa, Hector Lavoe.
A biopic following a musician as he undermines his fame with drugs or alcohol, coupled with the pain of the woman who loves him, is nothing new—this cliché-ridden premise is seemingly rolled out at least once a year, with only the details changed. That said, it can still make for good cinema (2005's Walk the Line, for example). So we know where we're going with El Cantante. How's the ride?
Facts of the Case
Starring real-life husband and wife Jennifer Lopez (Out of Sight) and Marc Anthony (Man on Fire), El Cantante charts the rise and self-destructive fall of Hector Lavoe, a pioneer of the Salsa music revolution in the 1970s and 80s.
Shortly after arriving in New York from Puerto Rico, Lavoe (Anthony) quickly finds himself singing in a small club, catching the eye of both the beautiful Puchi (Lopez) and trombone sensation Willie Colon (John Ortiz, Miami Vice). Before he knows it, he's locked into a lucrative record contract as part of the Fania All-Stars, making records that rocket up the charts thanks to his commanding stage presence, and engaged in a tumultuous relationship with Puchi.
The more success smiles on Lavoe, the deeper he delves into heroin addiction, reaching the point where Puchi's having to drag him directly from seedy shooting galleries to performances at Madison Square Garden. Lavoe's self-destructive behavior threatens his career, his family, and ultimately his life, and Puchi may not be able to stop it, even if she wants to.
We haven't seen that much of Jennifer Lopez The Actress lately, as she's been focusing more on musical pursuits, so it's easy to forget just how good she can be. Back in 1997-98, when Lopez had the hat trick of well-received turns in Selena, U-Turn, and Out of Sight, she showed off some serious acting chops coupled with a superstar persona off-screen. While subsequent films haven't gone as well for Lopez, she returns as a force to be reckoned with in El Cantante. It may be about Hector Lavoe's life, but it's Puchi's movie.
Right from the opening frame, Lopez grabs our attention as the assertive, foul-mouthed Puchi, making demands in black and white of the film crew interviewing her (in a reenactment of a real series of interviews conducted in 2002 that acts as a framing device for the story). She comes across as someone who's lived a hard life of late nights and substance abuse—a feat in itself for the reportedly clean living Lopez—and defies anyone to judge the choices she's made. Then we flashback to 1984, following an in-control and vibrant Puchi as she enables her drug-addled husband in living his double life, culminating in the refreshed Lavoe stomping onstage to the cheers of thousands, a beaming Puchi in the wings, all before the opening credits. Yes, Lopez owns this movie in a performance I wouldn't be surprised to see remembered come Oscar time. Unfortunately, the rest of the film doesn't quite meet the same standard.
The first 30-40 minutes of El Cantante are electrifying, a fast-paced, well shot entrance into the world of Salsa music and the lives of Lavoe and Puchi. The couple's courtship establishes their dynamic for the remained of the picture, and we see Lavoe's first experiences with drugs as innocent experimentation. The raucous performance scenes come early and come often, with director Leon Ichaso (Piñero) skillfully capturing the Latin vibe with an appropriate music video style, manipulating color and timelines to sweep us up in the excitement. Much of the film feels like a documentary, the viewer a fly on the wall and the subjects ignoring the camera, which makes for lively cinema.
Unfortunately, once Lavoe's drug use and paranoia overwhelm the narrative, the film seemingly has nowhere else to go, and we simply watch as he self-destructs. The man makes an exceedingly bad choice, Puchi's mad at him, Puchi forgives him. Repeat as needed. The derivative, formulaic second half of El Cantante destroys the promising scenes that came before, culminating in a matter-of-fact ending that fails to stir the emotions.
Part of the problem with El Cantante is that Hector Lavoe—despite being a beloved singing sensation—is not a particularly compelling character. Rather than someone whose success arrives as the result of years of hard work and dedication, fame seems to just happen to him. His early gig in New York comes from being stopped on the street and asked to help bring in a set of drums; before we know it, Lavoe's on stage being discovered. He's a passive character who relies on others to recognize, foster, and enable both his talent and his addiction, and by the end of the picture, I felt I knew little more about Lavoe as a man than when it started (although the Salsa movement in general, and the rise of the Fania All-Stars in particular, is well charted). Puchi, a much more complex character, fares better, but El Cantante's supposed to be about Lavoe, right?
Nonetheless, Marc Anthony is fantastic in the role of Lavoe, vanishing into the character and showing a previously unseen range, especially in scenes of violent confrontation with Lopez. The fact that the pair is actually married undoubtedly informs the trust they show with each other in scenes intimate and explosive. And the supporting cast is uniformly solid as well, not a false note among them (John Ortiz in particular is a man who's going places). Acting-wise, El Cantante is a standout; if only its subject were more gripping.
A movie about music has got to have great sound, and on that front El Cantante doesn't disappoint. With both DTS and Dolby Digital surround sound, this is an aggressive, aurally pleasing mix that brings to life the percussion-heavy soundtrack. Both tracks are exceptional, but the DTS predictably has an edge in timber, low-end, and transparency. Score and songs are almost always present, and if for no other reason, make the film worth watching. Video quality varies from scene to scene—a mix of formats and stocks were used for effect—and there are instances of compression artifacts, shimmering, and grain, none of which is particularly prominent or distracting, though. This is a colorful movie that'll look great on your television. The box indicates that El Cantante has been "Formatted from its original widescreen version to fit your screen," but the disc is 16:9 anamorphic, so I'm unclear as to whether this is a printing error, or the manufacturer is recognizing the slight change from its original 1.85:1 to 1.78:1.
A 35-minute featurette, composed primarily of interviews with the actors, a producer, and the director, give a fair amount of insight into how the movie got made, how it was cast, and so on. It's a decent, uncensored look at the film and is worth a viewing, even if you were disappointed with the final product. A single, amusing deleted scene of Lavoe doing an anti-drug PSA is also included, as are two feature-length commentaries. The first is a laid-back affair with a few interesting observations, but Ichaso often describes what's going on onscreen, always an annoying transgression in a commentary. The second, with scribes Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter, is much more lively and revelatory as they recount interviewing the real-life Puchi, how they were hired for the project, and so on. Of the two, the latter is doubtless the one to check out.
Despite a promising beginning, El Cantante falls victim to its clichéd plot and a main character who generates little empathy. The performances—especially the career-highlight turn by Lopez—are uniformly excellent, the music, writing, and direction all strong, but at the end of the day El Cantante's Salsa groove comes across as merely mild.
Guilty, but not for lack of trying.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: New Line
• The Sound and the Heat of El Cantante
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