El Cantante: Leon Ichaso’s Musical Film about Puerto Rican Salsa Singer Hctor Lavoe

Well-intentioned but clich-ridden, Leon Ichaso’s “El Cantante” aims to celebrate the life and music of the legendary Puerto Rican salsa singer Hctor Lavoe, a pioneer of the sounds that redefined Latin music in the 1960s and 1970s.

A labor of love and conviction for director Ichaso, and stars Marc Anthony and
Jennifer Lopez, who are both New Yorkers of Puerto Rican descent, this by-the-book filmmaking, about the rise and fall and death of the music star, is so shallow, empty, and general that the story could be applied to any showbiz personality who had a tragic life. Except for the distinctive Salsa music, there is very little in “El Cantante” that illuminates Lavoe’s unique artistry and/or the social context in which he worked and created his music.

Acting-wise, the film is also disappointing, representing a step down for Jennifer Lopez, who’s also a producer. As mediocre as Lopez’ biopic “Selena” was (it was helmed by Gregory Nava), “El Cantante” (literally meaning “The Singer”), that 1997 was far superior. A veritable catalogue of clichs, both in the storytelling and in the glitzy but superficial visuals, “El Cantante” doesn’t even offer the guilty pleasure that often accompanies bad biopics, like the Streisand version of “A Star Is Born.”

There’s certainly room for a movie about Puerto Rican indigenous music, national identity and lifestyle, a community that’s very seldom portrayed in mainstream Hollywood movies. Moreover, if “El Cantante” were made by white filmmakers, it would have been considered pandering and patronizing due to its embracement of prevalent stereotypes of this ethnic group.

The tedious visual format that Ichaso has chosen for the saga makes things worse. The tale is book-ended with black-and-white sequences, in which Lavoe’s wife Puchi (Jennifer Lopez heavily made up) recalls Lavoe’s life–and hers too. Periodically, the yarn, which unfolds in bright, hot colors, goes back to the b/w interview, a device that gets increasingly repetitious and prevents us from the little engagement we have in the characters in the first place.

Spanning two decades, from the 1960s to the 1980s, “El Cantante” charts Hctor Lavoe’s rapid rise to success and fame as an artist whose music combined Puerto Rican tradition with streetwise modernity and unabashed emotionalism. The film is meant as a comprehensive chronicle of his career, loves, and lifestyle, one dominated by drug abuse, abuse, and self-destruction; Lavoe died in 1993.

Fortunately, the text is accompanied with music, and some of the songs are really touching, with their emphasis on joy and pride, but mostly pain, sorrow, and endurance. Lavoe’ singing contained the raw stuff of life as ordinary people as he himself knew it.

As a young man in Ponce, Puerto Rico, Hctor (Marc Anthony) is heavily steeped in music, having grown up with a father (Ismael Miranda) who plays guitar in local orchestras. While his father envisions him joining an orchestra in Ponce, Hctor dreams of a singing career in New York. Hctor’s decision to pursue that dream causes a profound rift his father, a rejection that, according to the movie, continued to haunt Hctor for the rest of his life.

Arriving in New York in 1963, Hctor finds a thriving music scene in the City’s Latino neighborhoods. Energetic, modishly dressed groups of young people crowd the clubs where live bands play rumba, mambo, plena, son, merengue and other types of Latin music. He soon becomes part of that scene as a singer with various bands, and draws the attention of Johnny Pacheco (Nelson Vasquez), a Dominican bandleader and one of Latin music’s biggest stars.

Johnny introduces Hctor to Willie Colon (John Ortiz), an up-and-coming trombonist and bandleader in search of a singer. Together, the two musicians embody the dual nature of New York’s Puerto Rican community: Hctor, the Puerto Rican native who grew up speaking Spanish; Willie, the New York Puerto Rican, or Nuyorican, who grew up speaking English in the Bronx.

In scenes that thematically recall the early chapters of “Boogie Nights,” Hctor and Willie are part of a younger generation that’s attuned not only to traditional Puerto Rican styles but also to rock, jazz and R&B. The music they create is a product of those ingredients, like a sauce: Salsa.

While Hctor’s career blossoms, so does his personal life. Smitten virtually upon his arrival in New York by a beautiful, lively club-goer, Puchi (Lopez), Hctor turns up uninvited at her birthday party. His bold gesture stands in contrast to his sweet, polite demeanor. Puchi, who recognizes Hctor from his performances, is intrigued. What begins as a sly, teasing flirtation grows into deeper and more passionate love affair.

Groomed for stardom, Hector signs a contract with Fania Records, a new label founded by Johnny Pacheco and Jerry Masucci (Federico Castelluccio) as a Motown for the Latino community and its music. But before Hctor can hit the recording studio as a vocalist with the Willie Colon Orquestra, his real last name– the too common Perez–has to go. He’s rechristened Hctor Lavoe, a play on “la Voix,” the French translation of “the Voice” (which, by the way, was the label attached to Frank Sinatra!)

Though Diana Ross and the Supremes are not mentioned, most of the story takes place in the same decade that saw the black group’s rise to fame. Beginning in 1967, Hctor and Willie release a succession of LPs that become the foundations of salsa, with Hctor’s voice soaring over percolating brass and percussion on records including El Malo (The Bad Guy) and Cosa Nuestra (Our Thing).

What follows, rather predictably, are montages that depict sellout tours, festivals and outdoor events, rave reviews that reflect the heady, psychedelic spirit of the times. The concerts are jubilant extravaganzas that bring happiness to Hctor, often with Puchi dancing by the side of the stage.

In Puerto Rico, for example, throngs turn out to welcome their beloved hero. By the early 1970s, salsa has conquered the streets of New York and cities around the world, and Hctor Lavoe is its voice.

However, success is not the uncomplicated boon Hctor might have envisioned. Soon the emotions, so easily expressed in music, are reflected in harsher everyday existence. Hctor’s initial wariness of drugs and alcohol gives way to excess and addiction. Puchi’s loyalty is tested, before and after their marriage, with numerous affairs.

The mid-1980s bring more heartbreak than joy, with the accidental shooting death of their son, Tito. A succession of disasters follows with the death of Hctor’s father and the murder of Puchi’s mother, Hctor’s positive diagnosis for AIDS. Quite miraculously, the marriage survives, though not without bursts of anger and hysteria, bickering and fighting, often in front of their sensitive son.

Along with music, the indomitable, long-suffering Puchi is depicted as the constant in Lavoe’s life. Their relationship is as full of tender, unguarded moments, and jokes shared. To be sure, there are light moments, as when in an empty arena after a concert, a fully clothed Hctor joining his wife in the bathtub for some hot sex.

Unfortunately, in the end, despite claims to gritty realism, Ichaso succumbs to mythologizing Lavoe. In this version, throughout good times and bad, Hctor is shown to be an artist who continues to give his all to his music. His fans forgive his failings, cheer his successes and mourn his tragediesit’s as if his voice has become their voice.

The film ends on a high emotional note. In 1977, the young musician named Ruben Blades (Victor Manuelle) introduces a song he has written specifically for Hctor, performing it once before turning it over to his idol. That song becomes Hctor’s signature, a naked statement of who he is: “El Cantante.”

It’s disappointing to observe that Ichaso (whose best work remains “Crossover Dreams” in 1985) has not developed much as a director, and he uses the same strategies in most of his pictures, no matter what their particular subject is. In “Pinero” (2001), a biopic of the Puerto Rican author Miguel Piero (played by Benjamin Bratt), Ichaso treated him as an artist who had the soul of a poet but lived the life of a thief, employing a collage-like approach to his life, composed of flashbacks, drug-induced dreams, scenes from stage performances, and so on. The same format is used in “El Cantante.”

EL CANTANTE
Credits:

Running time: 116 minutes

Picturehouse
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

Cast

Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthony)
Puchi (Jennifer Lopez)
Willie Colon (John Ortiz)
Eddie (Manny Perez)
Papo (Antone Pagan)
Ralph (Vincent Laresca)