Review: El Cantante
By Robert Waddell
In Marc Anthony’s and Jennifer Lopez’s star vehicle “El Cantante,” Marc Anthony sings and looks like legendary salsero Hector Lavoe; Lopez embodies a 1970s sensibility in portraying the singer’s wife. However, as with the 1970s, Marc Anthony, Lopez and director Leon Ichaso have successfully revived the drug crazed morally deficient characters that demoralized Latinos in films like “Fort Apache, the Bronx” and Ichaso’s “Pinero.”
Marc Anthony’s Hector Lavoe is a great artist who falls victim to drugs and temptation right from the start of the film. As with many musicians’ biographies –“Bird,” “Ray” and “I Walk the Line” – a great artist is thrown into a pit of despair and drugs. The more famous he becomes the worse his vice. In “El Cantante,” Lopez’s character Puchi, Lavoe’s wife, said that the bigger Lavoe became an artist, the less human he became.
To many Puerto Ricans, Lavoe has iconic status. Marc Anthony reproduces all of the familiar Lavoe images on screen, but there’s little depth. On the other hand, Lopez has more to grab onto.
Trouble starts in the ominous moment when Lavoe meets Willie Colon who looks like a mafioso in sepia colors. The scene is dark and the ambiance is menacing and heavy handed for the beginning of a creative collaboration that catapulted the Fania All-Stars into international celebrity.
Lopez looks beautiful as always except for the character she plays. She has a lot to sink her teeth into as the worst kind of manipulative, rapacious, money grubbing, enabling delusional villain. Puchi is simply not likable.
The film is told in flashbacks from the perspective of an unreliable narrator. The flashbacks are based on an interview that the real Puchi did. The interviews are recreated in black and white.
Puchi recalls how her first time with Lavoe was so special and nothing was too good for her. But in the next scene, one sees the exterior of a parked car tossed side to side and Puchi cries, “It hurts.” The couple is in the back seat of the car, having sex. While Puchi tells her interviewers that she never did drugs until she met Lavoe, the movie shows she was the person to introduce Lavoe to marijuana.
As with Ichaso’s “Pinero,” “El Cantante” is true to the drugging 1970s Nuyorican salsa groove. Doing drugs looks sexy. But, like a prude, this reviewer wonders why Hollywood will only bankroll films about Puerto Ricans when we’re seen as drug addicts, pimps, whores and criminals? Isn’t this passé already?
Filmmakers need to think in the vein of Gregory Nava’s “Mi Familia/My Family” or Selma Hayek’s’ “Frida.” In reality, no one is 100% good or 100% evil. So, why must Puerto Ricans consciously be demoralized?
Drugs and crime are a part of life, but there are also uplifting and joyful stories, real and fictional human stories of Puerto Rican life. The problem is reality and perception: the reality is that Hector Lavoe did do drugs, but the perception is that Puerto Ricans seem to be always portrayed this way. An example of a positive story is Sonia Gonzalez’s stickball documentary which showed a firefighter who loved the street game and bravely gave his life on September 11. Stories by Nicholasa Mohr, Junot Diaz, Piri Thomas and Ernesto Quinones would also make interesting and bankable films.
One positive note about “El Cantante” is that Marc Anthony and Lopez have each put their best foot forward in recreating a story based on one point of view, but they forgot how important and iconic Lavoe is to the Puerto Rican community, not unlike Julia de Burgos, Pedro Albizu Campos and Roberto Clemente. They’re heroes.
Still, there are private moments in the acting of raw emotion and real acting in this movie. One forgets about the stars and sees real fleshed out characters in these scenes. One forgets that these superstars are married in real life and one sees true dedication to craft, story and music. If only it weren't all so dark and bleak.
The problem for Marc Anthony is that his portrayal is two-dimensional. He looks and sounds like Hector Lavoe, but there’s no depth. If the actor were to go deep, he would have shown a real, flawed human being who was also a great artist. Marc Anthony’s Lavoe takes no responsibility for his addictions or his demons.
Lopez, on the other hand, has so much to sink her teeth into. She gives her Puchi depth and complexity. It must have been fun for Lopez to play the villain and not the soft girls she usually plays. Puchi is a grown-up, a woman. Lopez is beautiful, stylish, sneaky and corrupting, but she takes no responsibility for her actions in enabling Lavoe’s drug addiction. Every man needs to see Lopez’s Puchi to know this is the type of sexy woman your mama warned you about.
I bet the producers of this film are banking on Oscar nods for Lopez, but the Academy Award should go to sound editing and mixing. The sound vibrates the best of "The Voice."
The problem with this film is truth and reality; the truth hurts and the reality is too undiluted. The situation of drugs is common and the stereotypes too familiar. The music here is amazing; it’s the flawed portraits that need re-mixing.
"El Cantante" is in theaters now.
Robert Waddell is a Bronx-based freelance writer who contributes his articles to Puerto Rico Sun.