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Long a vital undercurrent in American pop, Latin music broke out in the ’70s, both with salsa and its massive influence on disco. Director and co-writer Leon Ichaso conjures that heady period in El Cantante, which begins in 1963 and ends with protagonist Héctor Lavoe’s 1988 suicide attempt. Watching this dynamic but somewhat generic movie, viewers without specialized knowledge may wonder if Lavoe is a fictional or composite character. Lavoe did really exist, but he barely does in this movie, which plays like the story of an Everysinger’s slide into generalized show-biz excess.
Part of the problem is that the actors who impersonate Héctor and his wife, Puchi, are a package deal: He’s played by singer Marc Anthony, who has a supple voice and no acting background, and she’s played by Anthony’s spouse, Jennifer Lopez, an experienced if limited actress who also co-produced. Lopez’s Puchi has little to do but fall for Héctor and then protest his drug-addled irresponsibility, but she’s entrusted with the story’s framework. An unpersuasive black-and-white 2002 interview with Lopez’s Puchi (who looks to have aged only slightly in almost 40 years) is the chassis on which Ichaso mounts his time-hopping narrative.
“1985 was the end of the good times,” reports Puchi, who’s shown retrieving her husband from a New York shooting gallery when he should be onstage. But the good times actually seem to stop almost as soon as Héctor leaves Puerto Rico, where he’s shown singing on the street with his father. Dad doesn’t want Héctor to go to New York, and when he does, his sister doesn’t want him to marry Puchi. He does that too, eventually, at a wedding attended by their young son, who turns out to be another tragedy waiting to happen. In the feverishly cross-cut opening sequence, Héctor shakes off his heroin haze and comes alive for the audience. There’s a lot of shaking off in El Cantante, and while the music is joyous, every conga retort seems to announce more suffering. You may wonder if Lavoe’s exuberant performances were pure showbiz pretense, or if he had some motivation that Ichaso and co-writers David Darmstaedter and Todd Anthony Bello failed to locate.
An up-and-coming art-house star since 1979’s no-budget El Super, Ichaso keeps working but doesn’t make much progress. That’s due less to his commitment to stories about Latino life than his attraction to variations on the same theme. His 1985 Crossover Dreams tells much the same story as El Cantante and starred Rubén Blades, whose fictionalized counterpart appears in the new film, performing the title song he wrote about and for Lavoe. Ichaso did it again in 2001 with the hyperactive Piñero, whose protagonist wasn’t a musician but a drug-addicted Latino actor-writer. At least that film argued that Piñero’s vices were essential to his art. El
Cantante doesn’t even go that far; it just presents Lavoe’s narcotic and adulterous forays as a pointless sideshow that somehow upstages the main event.
A vigorous filmmaker, Ichaso has been likened to Martin Scorsese, and there are sequences in his latest movie that almost justify the comparison. When he cuts quickly, snakes the camera, and jumbles the music—Talking Heads, Marvin Gaye, and Animotion rub elbows with the Latin sounds—he effectively conjures a brave-new-world vibe. And there’s no questioning Ichaso’s dedication to the music: He’s one of the few directors ever to take a credit for “additional keyboards.” His movie’s energy, however, ultimately seems a distraction from its major character, whose life is merely sketched and whose character is barely considered. El Cantante is a tribute to a great singer that doesn’t know much about his singing, or its greatness.