Mild Salsa

Despite talented performances, direction, and music, El Cantante lacks kick.
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Posted August 1, 2007 by Cole Williams in Film

Hector Lavoe is considered one of the greatest artists of Latin music.

With Willie Colon, he practically invented salsa music. Despite good performances, direction, and a lively score, however, El Cantante, a story based on Lavoe’s life, is hampered by a ponderous pace and does little to offer any insight into the salsa legend. Lavoe (Marc Anthony), born Hector Perez in Puerto Rico, moves to New York City in the mid-1960s hoping to find success as a musician. He meets trombonist Colon (John Ortiz), and they team up with Fania Records, change Hector’s last name to Lavoe (a play on the French words “la voix,” meaning “the voice”), and hit stardom. At the same time, Lavoe falls for Puchi (Jennifer Lopez), and the two begin a lifelong roller-coaster of a relationship. But as Lavoe’s star rises, so does his drug use. And it’s the details of his drug use that take up most of the movie, reducing the film, basically, to: man does drugs, man’s wife chastises him for doing drugs, man sings a salsa song. Repeat.

That’s unfortunate, because the movie otherwise has a lot going for it, including real-life couple Lopez and Anthony. Anthony does a good job of making you forget that he is Marc Anthony by capturing Lavoe’s mannerisms, his outer, showy shell, and his boiling inner turmoil. Lopez, shrill and raw, disappears into Lavoe’s ever-present and supportive wife. The supporting cast is equally strong. Also solid is Leon Ichaso’s directing. He uses odd, off-kilter camera angles to capture the anxious depths of Lavoe’s drug binges. Ichaso also creatively uses subtitles during Lavoe’s songs, with English translations appearing out of thin air and floating on screen. And, of course, one of the film’s biggest strengths is its soundtrack, full of Lavoe’s classics, all sung wonderfully by Anthony.

It is all of those strengths that make the movie’s pitfalls feel worse. Anthony spends most of the movie behind dark sunglasses, hiding his sad, soulful eyes and diminishing his performance. Lopez has far more screen time — interviews with Puchi are the movie’s framing device — and, as a result, the story sometimes feels more hers than Lavoe’s. We’re supposed to believe that Lavoe is a man of the people, but we never see it, possibly because Puchi is doing all of the talking. While the directing is good overall, the musical scenes are shot with a confusing hand-held look, making them feel less like lively concerts and more like hazy battlefield footage. And Lavoe’s fans may wonder why certain parts of his life go largely unmentioned, including the death of Puchi’s mother, Lavoe’s womanizing, and the son he had with another woman.
Another film about Lavoe, The Singer, produced by salsa star La India, is slated to come out later this year.

El Cantante
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and John Ortiz. Written and directed by
Leon Ichaso, David Darmstaeder, and Todd Anthony Bello. Rated R.

 


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