In his first above-the-title starring role in a feature film, Latin singing sensation Marc Anthony spends roughly 50 percent of his screen time on stage singing. Which is about 50 percent less than he probably should, given the musical segments of El Cantante are about the only ones that have a ring of truth to them.
In El Cantante, Anthony stars opposite his real-life wife Jennifer Lopez as famed ’70s chart-topper Héctor Lavoe. Together with a small cabal of New York/Puerto Rican performers, Lavoe helped popularize the musical genre known as salsa, a cooked-up combo of jazz, cha-cha, mambo, merengue, conga and popular dance music.
Despite the fact that the story in El Cantante stretches from the early ’60s all the way to 2002, the actors aren’t aged one bit on screen. Jennifer Lopez’ character looks exactly the same at 20 as she does at 60. I don’t know if the budget wouldn’t allow for gray hairspray or if Lopez just refused to look all wrinkly—either way it’s a telltale sign of lazy filmmaking.
The laziness continues as writer/director Leon Ichaso (maker of the virtually identical biopic Piñero) charts Lavoe’s rise to fame with endless musical montages—cliché images of record covers, concert posters and chart positions superimposed over the hip-shaking, horn-blowing action. He eats up even more of the film’s run time with footage of Lavoe performing on stage, lyrics scrolling across the screen like a karaoke video. These aren’t gimmicks that Ichaso uses once or twice. Four, five and six times, these identical sequences repeat themselves. It makes you wonder if Ichaso ran out of script pages to shoot 40 minutes into the film.
Perhaps Ichaso isn’t entirely to blame for the problem. Based on the evidence at hand, he seems to have chosen a fairly poor subject for biopic treatment. Lavoe was an icon to be sure. But his story lacks a certain dramatic arc. The guy got famous, did a lot of drugs and argued with his wife. That’s seems to be the long and short of it.
Ichaso throws in a lot of slo-mo, some grainy film stock and the most egregious use of the zoom lens since ’70s Italian cinema, all in an attempt to make his film feel gritty. Mostly, though, El Cantante feels like an edgy Chanel commercial shot exclusively for MTV Latino. (Perhaps it was all those years Ichaso spent directing “Miami Vice” episodes.)
Anthony does a credible enough job in the acting department, keeping mostly silent when not weaving his magic on stage. Lopez gives up acting in favor of pure histrionics as Lavoe’s bitchy wife Puchi. The bottom line is there aren’t a lot of sympathies to go around here. Lavoe does drugs and sleeps with hookers. Puchi buys expensive clothes and harps on him constantly. There isn’t much likable about either of these people, which makes you wonder why it’s worth going behind the music in the first place.
Why did a rich, successful, incredibly talented man like Lavoe drink, shoot heroin and sleep around on his wife? Not only does El Cantante fail to provide answers to those questions, it doesn’t even seem interested in asking them. After a while, all the entertainment value El Cantante had to offer (great music and the occasional witty exchange of dialogue) drains away, leaving a film that’s just no fun to watch. It’s basically like listening to your drunk upstairs neighbors argue for two hours.
There’s no doubt Héctor Lavoe was a force to be reckoned with. His songs stand the test of time and carry a fascinating story of life, love, riches and loss woven amid their melancholy lyrics. Unfortunately, that’s a feat El Cantante can’t seem to replicate.
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