August 9, 2007

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El Cantante (R)
Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony pull out the sleekest threads from the 1970s and ’80s section of the vintage store for El Cantante, a musically rich, dramatically poor biopic about salsa singer Hector Lavoe.

Hector Lavoe (Anthony) is still Hector Perez when he first comes to New York in the early 1960s, a Puerto Rican kid with a big voice and big dreams. Eventually he starts singing in local clubs and picks up the name Lavoe when Fania, a Latin music label, starts putting out records with Hector and other artists. As his fame increases, so does his popularity with the ladies, specifically with Puchi (Lopez), a New York Puerto Rican girl. Though he’s not exclusive with her (according to Wikipedia he actually had a son with another woman while dating Puchi), Puchi seems to wait out the other women and, thanks to a pregnancy and some serious determination, eventually gets him to marry her (which ultimately requires her to show up at his hotel room the morning after his raucous bachelor party, chase out strange women and shake him awake — all while wearing her wedding dress and trailing her wedding party).

Perhaps because she’s able to turn a blind eye to the women and eventually accepts Hector’s drug use, Puchi enjoys the first part of their life together. She’s with him as he becomes a superstar within his genre and helps to bring about one of many musical Latin explosions. Of course constant heroin use, drinking and tom-catting around seldom lead to eternal happiness. So for every 10 minutes of success, the movie shows Hector dragged through 20 minutes of suffering, ending up in the mid-1980s exhausted, suicidal and HIV-positive.

If you don’t really know anything about Hector Lavoe (I didn’t going in), El Cantante does offer a fairly good introduction to his music. He’s a solid singer and his songs — an appealing mix of salsa, Latin love songs and a from-the-street kind of late-1970s soul — make you wish you knew the words so you could sing along while you got up and danced. What feels like some misguided impulse to make the music “more accessible” resulted in the English translations of the lyrics appearing on the screen as Anthony sings, a la Van Halen’s “Right Now” video. And, according to the movie’s soundtrack album, it is Anthony singing. He does a credible enough job to make me want to hear more of Lavoe’s music.

El Cantante is at its best when Anthony is singing and Lopez is somewhere in the background or in her own glossy close-ups rocking the period clothes like she’s at shoot for some Vanity Fair photo spread. Lopez and Anthony look great and believable in their period clothes and comfortable singing and dancing.

Neither is a particularly good actor and, as entertaining as it is to hear Lopez use what’s likely a slightly exaggerated version of her own Bronx-born accent, the scenes where they have to emote are somewhat stilted. Though they have good chemistry, Lopez and Anthony don’t have strong enough screen presences to overcome weak dialogue and some general lackluster storytelling (this movie is montage- and narration-heavy). Lopez, who was actually pretty good keeping Selena together, has what is really a minor part unnaturally bloated to accomidate Lopez’s stardom. The Puchi character feels shoe-horned in more than would be natural in a Lavoe bio, causing Lopez’s whole performance to feel stagy.

El Cantante isn’t a good movie, but it’s a pretty decent music video. Fans of Latin music could do worse than spend some time (on DVD, where you can fast forward through all that bothersome acting) with Lavoe’s music. C

Rated R for drug use, pervasive language and some sexuality. Directed by Leon Ichaso and written by Ichasco, David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello, El Cantante is an hour and 56 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Picturehouse.