If it weren’t for the infectious, wall-to-wall salsa music, which Marc Anthony performs with a clear, stirring voice and great passion, it would be easy to write “El Cantante” off entirely as a shameless vanity project.
Not for Anthony, mind you, but for his wife, Jennifer Lopez, who gets top billing and serves as a producer.
Director and co-writer Leon Ichaso has made a pretty standard biopic of salsa legend Hector Lavoe, hitting all the obligatory highlights of the singer’s life: his arrival in New York from Puerto Rico in 1963, his first gig, his first meeting with the sassy Puchi (Lopez), who would become his wife and the mother of his son. There’s the rise to stardom (marked by the de rigueur montage of screaming crowds, concert posters and newspaper clippings) followed by the descent into heroin abuse, the death of his teenage son, his own suicide attempt and his eventual death from AIDS in 1993 at 46.
Ichaso wallows in the decadence of the drug-fueled era, as if he’d watched Ted Demme’s “Blow” a few times too many. An early scene in which Puchi snorts coke off Hector’s lap in the back of a limo comes to mind, as does the moment when Puchi steps from the vehicle in a clingy red dress and fur coat with Animotion’s “Obsession” blaring in the background. It’s so obvious at times, it plays like a parody, rather than an honest effort at providing insight into a talented man’s tortured soul.
Through every decade, there’s Lopez, making a million wardrobe changes and shaking her thing backstage in a million gratuitous cutaways. She always manages to look gorgeous, of course, even toward the end of Puchi’s life when she reflects on their relationship in a black-and-white interview, which serves as the film’s framing device.
And she and Anthony do have an undeniable chemistry. Watching the real-life couple isn’t nearly as distracting as it was when Lopez co-starred with then-fiance Ben Affleck in the notorious “Gigli.”
A lot of that has to do with the fact that Anthony actually can act, something he previously demonstrated as the wealthy father of a kidnapped girl in “Man on Fire.” But the script, which Ichaso co-wrote with David Darmstaedter and Todd Anthony Bello, only hints in pop-psychology ways at the source of Hector’s torment. His father (Ismael Miranda) didn’t want him to go to New York and was never satisfied, despite the heights Hector reached. He strayed with other women and started doing drugs because, well, it’s what rock stars do.
Ultimately, “El Cantante,” which is also the title of Hector’s signature song, leaves you feeling like you’ve watched yet another cliché, a shortened life in the same polluted vein as Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf.
That he was destined for greatness was something we probably could have determined for ourselves without Puchi telling her interviewers (and us): “It was like he was prepared for it — like he always knew he was going to make it.”
After singing at a club in the Bronx, he’s paired with trombonist Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and the two sign a deal with the up-and-coming Fania Records to become Latin music’s hottest new stars. The sa
lsa music they pioneered served as a vibrant voice of a people, as evidenced by sold-out shows and Hector’s increasingly lavish lifestyle.
But it’s one of his simplest performances in the film that’s also his most powerful. Hector returns to his old neighborhood soon after achieving fame and sings for an adoring crowd in the street. The sun is shining under a brilliant blue sky and there’s a kinetic energy in the air, which Ichaso captures with fluid camerawork.
In the middle of it all is Anthony, pouring out his soul, larger than life despite his lean frame. It makes you long to see a documentary of Lavoe, or at least a concert film in which Anthony performs his songs, instead of this.