Director: Leon Ichaso
Cast: Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, John Ortiz, Manny Perez, Vincent Laresca, Federico Castelluccio, Nelson Vasquez, Antone Pagan
MPAA Rating: (for drug use, pervasive language and some sexuality)
Running Time: 1:46
Release Date: 8/3/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
I knew nothing of singer Héctor Lavoe sitting down to watch El Cantante—that is, sadly, a flaw of my generation—but I learned nothing more about him than I gleaned from the movie's prologue—that is, sadly, the flaw of the movie. Here's what I learned: Lavoe sang, became famous, did drugs, and died young. Those are the only notes the movie hits, and it hits them repeatedly without any form of subtlety or any caring for the man's career, impact on the world of music, or the potential causes for his self-destructive lifestyle. It's the biopic in its barest form. Compare this movie to the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose that came out earlier this year, and you'll see the difference. That film not only admired its subject but cared enough about her to explore her life, show how she became who she was, and tie her music into the overall picture of her career. Their stories are similar (it seems an all-too sad, familiar one: Live fast; die young), as are the time-shifting structures that make up their life stories. One film has legitimate passion for an artist's life lived; El Cantante does not.
Strangely, Lavoe, played by singer Marc Anthony, is immediately put in the background by his introduction. His story is seen through the eyes of his wife Puchi (Jennifer Lopez, who, as we all know, is married to Anthony) in a series of faux documentary interview sessions that take place in 2002. According to the movie, this interview actually took place, which begs the immediate question: Why don't we see the real Nilda "Puchi" Lavoe on screen? Well, it's Jennifer Lopez instead, and we'd better get used to it. Just as we'd better get used to the fact that it's not actually Héctor's story but, as Puchi scolds the camera crew, her version of Héctor's story. It starts in 1985 with no one being able to find Héctor before he's supposed to perform, and Puchi finds him doing heroin and gets him on stage. In 1963, Héctor arrives in New York City, helps a band into a club, and is singing within a few months. He eventually pairs up with Willie Colón (John Ortiz) and helps vitalize Salsa music. He also meets Puchi, starts a passionate relationship with her, and begins an equally passionate relationship with a variety of drugs.
The relevance of Lavoe's addiction to cocaine, heroin, and the like has the simplicity of an after-school special, but on an even deeper level, the movie fails to give us any kind of window into his behavior that would clarify why he took such a self-destructive route. There's clearly pain here—he lost a brother, his father disowns him for leaving Puerto Rico—but it's sidetracked in the name of the script getting from one point to the next without making any stops along the way. Puchi has a theory: "Everything came to him." A lot of the character moments come from these distanced musings on his life, which is succinctly and frustratingly summed up once again: "The better he got as an artist, the deeper he sank as a human being." Is it success that got to him? No, that's far too simple, because success can be used for many outlets. Lavoe chose this path, and we have no clue why. Instead, that fact is used for the obvious message: Drugs are bad. We see Lavoe at Puchi's birthday party smoking pot for the first time. He gets sick; the next day, he tells a friend, "I'm never going to do that again." The naive irony of the moment is unintentionally amusing.
Lavoe and Puchi have a similarly destructive relationship. She partakes in his addiction as well, and they yell and fight a lot. There's nothing really behind the fights, except for the occasional recognition that Lavoe is also a philanderer, and the movie spirals into the usual territory. Lavoe becomes depressed, potentially suicidal, checks into a hospital, continues with the drugs, sings occasionally, and ultimately finds himself at death's doorstep, waiting for the inevitable. Neither Lavoe nor Puchi come across as particularly sympathetic, especially the latter, who all but abandons her husband in his darkest hour (which we don't see; Puchi says she wants to remember him as he was). The music scenes have some life to them, but this is a man who helped create a new combined style of music. Instead of seeing any of the creation process, we're instead given the usual montage of headlines flashing across the screen to show his rise to fame followed by more depressingly underdeveloped looks at his personal life. Anthony does what he can with the role. He's great in the music scenes (performing the songs himself, of course) but is reduced to looking pained or stoned through the rest.
I don't try to deny that anyone involved with the movie has admiration for Lavoe; in fact, their appreciation for the man may have gotten in the way. Biopics that work act as portraits to a life lived, with the ups and downs, the understanding of what makes someone tick, and honesty. El Cantante is more like a snapshot; someone cared enough to take it but not enough to consider how it looks.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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