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1 item from 2006

El Cantante

18 September 2006 | The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News | See recent The Hollywood Reporter - Movie News news »

TORONTO -- The downward spiral for the main characters in El Cantante begins in the first scenes, so all director Leon Ichaso can do to distract you from the depressing story of salsa king Hector Lavoe is put as much exuberance into the musical performances as in the drug highs. Thus Ichaso fills his movie with so many chart-busting hits, El Cantante almost feels like a party film. Unfortunately, the music is as irresistible as the tired story of a musician succumbing to substance abuse is resistible. What can you do with a character whose own wife admits that the greater he becomes as an artist, the deeper he sinks as a human being?

Real-life husband and wife Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez provide the real chemistry -- albeit the combustible kind -- as Lavoe and his wife of 20 years, Puchi. And Anthony's re-recordings of Lavoe's classics bring great energy to the movie. Even so, El Cantante may struggle to attract an audience beyond fans of the music and of the stars who re-create the tragedy behind such happy songs.

The framing device in the screenplay Ichaso wrote with David Darmstaedter and Todd Anthony Bello is an interview, shot in black and white, given by Puchi some time after her husband's death. Indeed, it is a ghost story because, as she sadly laughs, just about everyone is dead except her.

Hector Perez, as Lavoe was known before his record label renamed him, came to the isle of Manhattan from the isle of Puerto Rico intent on conquering the music world. According to Puchi, this proves all too easy. Record producers quickly recognize his talent in small clubs. They pair him with trombonist Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and set the duo out to "cook up" a stew of rumba, mambo, jazz, merengue and plena called salsa.

Hector and Puchi see each other around at Puerto Rican clubs and parties, and soon one thing leads to another. It takes a few years and a son for her to pin him down to marriage. By then she is his unofficial manager, only she cannot manage their offstage lives.

Both become druggies, only he is much worse. What the movie never makes clear is to what degree Puchi was Hector's enabler when it came to substance abuse. She warns him against drugs, in between hits, which is not the best anti-drug message you can deliver.

The movie keeps you at arm's length from its characters, possibly because the filmmakers don't understand them, either. The couple fights over the wrong things as drugs eat away at their bodies and souls. A son, Tito, is seen at various ages, but you get no idea of what family life may be like for the Lavoes. Or if such a thing exists at all.

The movie offers up pat, simplistic reasons for such self-destructive behavior -- a father's rejection, rough patches in a tumultuous marriage -- but they don't wash. Hector can clearly see what is happening to him and to those around him he holds dear.

Anthony and Lopez (who is one of the film's producers) are thoroughly convincing as a couple that cannot live with or without one another. He is a soothing, romantic singer whose songs capture the intoxicating island fever of good times and bracing tropical breezes. She is hot, tough and determined, a devastating combination of brains and beauty.

Even the movie skips the last five years of Lavoe's life, choosing to end with his failed suicide attempt rather than dwell on a slow death from AIDS. Along the way, the film catches glimpses of the heady days of salsa in the '70s as well as the decline of that musical craze the next decade. However, footage from Lavoe's funeral in New York in 1993 demonstrates that thousands still adored the man and his music.



A Nuyorican Prods./R-Caro Prods. production in association with Union Square Works


Director: Leon Ichaso

Screenwriters: Leon Ichaso, David Darmstaedter, Todd Anthony Bello

Producers: Julie Caro, Jennifer Lopez, Simon Fields, David Maldonado

Director of photography: Claudio Chea

Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky

Costume designer: Sandra Hernandez

Co-producer: Margo Myers

Music: Andres Levin

Editor: David Tedeschi


Hector Lavoe: Marc Anthony

Puchi: Jennifer Lopez

Willie Colon: John Ortiz

Eddie: Manny Perez

Papo: Antone Pagan

Ralph: Vincent Laresca

No MPAA rating

Running time -- 116 minutes »

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