By Matt Singer
[Photo: Marc Anthony in “El Cantante,” Picturehouse Entertainment, 2007]
“El Cantante” is a love letter from its stars, Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez, to themselves. Though it is a biopic about a talented singer, salsa pioneer Hector Lavoe, celebrating his life, his music and his fans takes a backseat to celebrating the great off-screen romance between Mr. and Mrs. J.Lo. Their love will last a lifetime, or at least as long as it takes you to sit through this muddled vanity project.
Lavoe (Anthony), who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York City in the 1960s, was a crucial member of the early salsa scene. His loyal wife Puchi (Lopez) was always by his side. In classic biopic storytelling fashion, we get only the most crucial information about these two people and we get it delivered in the most economical, least dramatic way possible. For instance, we meet Lavoe in Puerto Rico, where he is a street performer. Cut to Lavoe and his father, begging his son not to go to America. Cut to Lavoe in America. Cut to “Four Months Later” and Lavoe is already an emerging talent on the club scene. Soon Hector is an enormous star, and later he will get washed away in a sea of druggy excess, but the life lived between these moments is never present. The film is a series of actions without motivations.
What, after all, do we know about Hector? We know he’s Puerto Rican, that he has a “one-in-a-million voice” and he does, or at least Anthony does and that he loves to smoke crack, especially before a big performance. Director Leon Ichaso and writers David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello never address Hector’s desires or goals, at least those beyond drink and drugs. They make shockingly quick work of what is typically the most interesting part of this kind of story, the subject’s meteoric rise, and make frustratingly slow work of the least interesting part, his inevitable fall. Everyone tells Lavoe that he’s so talented that his success is guaranteed, and that could very well be accurate. But accurate or not, guaranteed success is also guaranteed lack of drama.
For sure, the soundtrack (along with Anthony’s musical performance) is terrific, but the songs feel disconnected from the narrative they support with their infectious energy. Music is performed but it is never created. Montages show us concert posters and album covers, but we don’t see most of the concerts and we see none of the albums being written, recorded or discussed. “El Cantante” credits Lavoe and his trumpeter, Willie Colón (John Ortiz) as the originators of salsa music but the two spend remarkably little time actually developing their sound. Naming the genre they create is as easy as Willie saying “Call it salsa it’s a musical sauce!”
No matter how badly Hector behaves, Puchi’s there to clean him up and shove him out on stage, where he can perform and she can dance and sing along from the wings. “El Cantante” is, as much as anything, about the sheer thrill Lopez gets out of watching Anthony on stage the accumulated adoring imagery of her gazing appreciatively at her man reminded me of Amber Waves’ documentary about Dirk Diggler in “Boogie Nights.” The co-stars passion for one another is always evident. Their passion for their audience, a great deal less so.
A note: Though the film spans decades in the characters’ lives, Lopez and Anthony never seem to age physically outside of “El Cantante”‘s framing story epilogue. Their child grows in front of our eyes from infant to toddler to troubled teenager but his parents stay a well-preserved 35. Could these two simply not bear the thought of looking old on camera?
“El Cantante” opens in wide release on August 3rd (official site).