Puchi from the block

The closing titles of biopic El Cantante note that the film’s subject, Hector Lavoe, died of AIDS in the early ’90s after contracting the disease from drug use. The only reason for driving home that point, it seems to me, is to ensure that the departed isn’t slandered by the implication that he could have, in some moment of unmacho weakness or decadent excess, experimented with homosexuality. That’s hardly necessary here, as the film suggests from the opening frames that drugs were the only thing of any real interest in this life. What else could have killed him?

Hector Lavoe was a “Fania All-Star” — a singing sensation for the New York record label that popularized the blend of jazz and Latin dance music known as salsa. More importantly, though, at least according to the screenplay of El Cantante, he was a hopeless victim of cocaine and heroin, a man whose dearth of life skills went well beyond the inability to get to gigs on time: In the end, he couldn’t even kill himself right. (He jumped out of a hotel window, but an air-conditioning vent broke his fall; he malingered for five more years that were so uninteresting to the filmmakers that Cantante skips right to his funeral.)

Lavoe’s story is fed to us by the estranged wife who survived him. We hear from the older, wiser woman, known as Puchi, in black-and-white footage shot in ersatz behind-the-scenes documentary style. This framing device allows the screenwriters to make hoary observations about Lavoe’s character without incorporating them into credible dialogue. More importantly, it provides Jill-of-All-Trades Jennifer Lopez a structural way to upstage the film’s ostensible star, Marc Anthony. Anthony’s character may be the reason for the pic, but that doesn’t stop Lopez (who in these scenes should be in her ’60s, but sure doesn’t look it) from pacing around the old, dusty studio doling out wistful “if these walls could talk” clichés and throwing down some brassy attitude whenever the interviewers dare to doubt her take on the man’s life.

Lopez was one of Cantante’s producers, which guarantees her all the screen time she wants. But it’s Anthony who pulls off the musician-thespian thing with more credibility here: He blows through the drunk and doped-up backstage drama like a veteran who’s just amusing himself until a flunky finally drags him to the bandstand — where, almost despite itself, the movie comes to life.

Yes, there’s music in this movie, and it’s throbbingly seductive. Cantante’s concert sequences, with a legion of faceless players surrounding the star, are the only places the filmmakers’ colorful, woozy camera style and coked-up editing really feel justified. But those scenes are never woven into any meaningful observations about salsa’s history, and they supply little insight into the star whose Pop Life biopic plays strictly by the numbers. 

El Cantante
Dir. Leon Ichaso; writ. Ichaso, David Darmstaeder, Todd Antony Bello; feat. Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, John Ortiz, Manny Perez, Vincent Laresca, Federico Castelluccio, Nelson Vasquez (R)

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