For “El Cantante,” someone left the salsa out on the counter too long. A virtual template of every imaginable cliche of the musical biopic, pic suffers from a lack of narrative and character focus, partly stemming from the need for producer-star Jennifer Lopez (whose shingle Nuyorican Prods. has nurtured the project) to have a co-leading part with substantial playing time alongside Marc Anthony, who portrays famed, drug-addled salsa star Hector Lavoe. While pic’s assured a few good weeks based on J-Lo’s fan base, this gig is headed South in short order.
Positioning of Leon Ichaso as helmer would seem to be a shrewd choice, given his finely wrought biopic “Pinero” and his previous “Hendrix.” But script by Ichaso, David Darmstaedter and Todd Anthony Bello fails to explore in an interesting way what drove such a beloved recording artist as Lavoe (a huge star for Fania Records from the ’60s through the mid-’80s) to self-destruct in a mountain of cocaine and heroin.
Worse, the central narrative device–Lopez as Puchi, Lavoe’s loving but difficult wife, giving her side of the story for a “Behind the Music”-style film–is instantly phony and arch. For starters, Lopez doesn’t look like the older woman she plays, even though her Puchi would actually be well into her 60s. To make matters dicier, Puchi couldn’t have possibly been privy to some of the situations Hector is shown in, so the whole notion of the pic being her p.o.v. is dubious.
After an on-screen graphic noting that 1985 was Hector’s last good year and a prelude when Puchi arrives like a bitch on wheels for the filming session, bio flashes back to Puerto Rico, 1963. Hector is a charming singer with his dad, but he knows that he has to immigrate to Gotham in order to grab the success he senses is his. Puchi is instantly attracted to him in a Bronx nightclub, and they’re a couple well before the second reel.
Hector comes to the attention of Jerry Masucci (Federico Castelluccio), who’s forming a stable of talent for his new Fania label. Matched with New York-based trumpeter Willie Colon (John Ortiz), Hector begins developing musical ideas to mix jazz (Willie’s forte), merengue (Hector’s passion), samba and other Latin styles into “a sauce” — salsa.
Sadly, “El Cantante” barely addresses Hector and Willie’s artistry, and never explores (as in, say, Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker bio, “Bird”) how performing artists moving into new territory develop and mature. Pic’s perhaps unintended suggestion is that Hector arrived fully formed (hardly the case).
It’s quickly apparent that Puchi — who does little but watch Hector sing — is a poor choice for narrator and that her character has been barely conceived on the page. Evidence of Puchi’s comments that Hector was “funny and corny” almost never pops up, while her tendency to turn nastier and more spiteful as they grow wealthier and move to a Central Park townhouse makes her borderline repellant.
Huge chunk of pic’s midsection, as well as final reels, are consumed with Hector fighting his worsening addiction. Puchi repeatedly chides him, but the fact that she also indulged in drugs in the ’60s and ’70s alongside Hector is not addressed.
There’s less dramatic rise and fall in “El Cantante” than a dull, downward slide that only an artist with the power of a Scorsese could have turned into something fascinating to watch.
Story is interrupted from time to time with welcome views of Hector and Willie onstage, supported by a fabulous assembly of big-band players (totaling some 59, according to credits, along with over a dozen other credited players and dancers). Ichaso’s direction appears to come alive during these musical respites in the grinding narrative, hinting at a very different movie that might have been.
Lopez conjures up plenty of ferocity and street attitude as Puchi, but there’s no shape, or power, to the wrath. Similarly, Anthony seems ill at ease playing a rather passive guy who goes far with his talent but seems to lack an inner compass. He ends up being among the dullest of movie drug addicts.
Production package is geared for the bigscreen, but the fairly bland visual design will make pic more than suitable to be seen on the tube. Within pic’s many standard-issue biopic montage sequences, a fun array of period concert posters and Fania album covers is sure to be appreciated by salsa lovers.