Cantante, El (2007): Jennifer Lopez Salsa Movie

Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony have expressed pride in their Puerto Rican heritage, acknowledging its impact on their creative identities as they rose to stardom. Raised in the Bronx and Manhattan, respectively, Lopez and Anthony have long served as ambassadors for Latin culture and Nuyorican/Puerto Rican culture in particular.
Their first onscreen collaboration, and the first feature produced by Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions, is the story of a Latin icon, the Puerto Rican salsa singer Hctor Lavoe.

A musical biopic, EL CANTANTE is also a heartfelt tribute to a trailblazing talent who became the voice of his people and helped pave the way for future generations of Latin performers–including Lopez and Anthony.

Born Hctor Perez on September 30, 1946, Hctor Lavoe was a country boy from Ponce, Puerto Rico. Like countless islanders before him, he emigrated to the United States to seek his fortune. He was just 17 when he arrived in New York City in May 1963, with dreams of becoming a singer. Four years later, he became an overnight star when he and bandleader/trombonist Willie Colon released their first album together on Fania Records, El Malo (The Bad Guy), a landmark work that would solidify a new style of Latin music, salsa. In its sound, salsa was more hard-driving than its predecessor genres as well as more experimental; lyrically it was different, too, with an urban, gritty and often topical sensibility.

Hctor Lavoe sang about the life that people knew in the barrios of America, and he was a master improviser–in salsa terms, a sonero–able to spin dazzling variations on a song’s themes or lyrics. In a 1997 interview, famed salsa producer, pianist and bandleader Larry Harlow called Hctor Lavoe the Barrio poet.

From the beginning, salsa was an affirmation of identity, in its instrumentation (Hispanic Caribbean mainstays like clave, congas, timbales) as well as its lyrics. The late 1960s and early 1970s saw young Latinos organizing in their communities and demanding a voice in government through political parties like the Puerto Rican Young Lords.

The records made by Hctor Lavoe, Colon and other Fania Records artists were a soundtrack for a cultural awakening, and Hctor Lavoe songs like “Mi Gente” (“My People”) and “Paraso de Dulzura” (“Sweet Paradise”) became enduring anthems of ethnic pride. Meanwhile, salsa had become a global phenomenon, and Hctor Lavoe toured Europe, Latin America and Japan as a solo artist and as a member of his record label’s powerhouse group, the Fania All Stars. In the U.S. and Puerto Rico, there were sold-out shows for thousands of fans at venues including Madison Square Garden and Yankee Stadium.

Between 1967 and 1973, Hctor Lavoe made ten LPs as a singer with Willie Colon and his Orquestra, including the best-selling classics Cosa Nuestra (Our Thing) and Asalto Navideo (Christmas Assault). In 1975, he released his solo debut, La Voz. His 1978 album, Comedia, which introduced his signature song, “El Cantante,” was hailed as a masterpiece, while his final studio album, Hctor Lavoe Strikes Back earned him a Grammy nomination in 1988.

As famous and successful as Hctor Lavoe became, he never lost his essential sense of self, ever ceased proclaiming himself proudly a jbaro, a humble Puerto Rican peasant. He was unpretentious and accessible, and could often be found mingling with audience members between concert sets. His struggles with drugs and alcohol were common knowledge, as was the volatile nature of his marriage to his wife, born Nilda Georgina Romn and widely known by her nickname, “Puchi.”

Hctor Lavoe’s drug habit interfered with his professional life and he was chronically late to concerts; sometimes he didn’t show at all. Yet his fans forgave him, won over by not only his music but also his disarming personality and ironic sense of humor. When tragedies mounted in his personal life, his fans grieved with him. And when Hctor Lavoe died on June 29, 1993 of complications related to AIDS, the streets were thronged for his funeral procession.

In 2001, eight years after Hctor Lavoe’s death, Jennifer Lopez received a screenplay about the singer’s life. Developed by Hctor Lavoe’s former road manager, David Maldonado, the story by David Darmstaeder and Todd Anthony Bello drew upon several interviews with Hctor Lavoe’s widow, Puchi. It was Puchi’s hope that Lopez would portray her onscreen.

“At the time I knew of Hctor Lavoe, but not much about him,” Lopez recalls. After reading the screenplay, she delved into Hctor Lavoe’s records as well as his biography. “Once I really got to know the music, I realized, ‘This is important.’ Hctor was a voice of the people, a jbaro, a boy from the sticks. People identified with him.”

By the time Lopez founded her production company, Nuyorican, in 2003, she was determined to bring Hctor Lavoe’s story to the screen: “What better project to be the first movie for Nuyorican Productions This was a way to thank Hctor, to honor him, for all that he gave and all that he suffered. I wanted everyone to know about this man, this music and this incredible period of time.”

Julio Caro, who worked with Lopez on the 2000 thriller/fantasy THE CELL, joined Lopez to produce the film. Caro, who is of Dominican heritage, has been a salsa fan since his youth and knew Hctor Lavoe’s music well. He was eager to make a film that would highlight Hctor Lavoe’s remarkable artistic achievements in the face of a troubled existence.

Comments Caro: “Hctor Lavoe was an immensely talented man who really made all the wrong choices. What made this story worth telling is the legacy he left in music was so redemptive, so uplifting and so powerful that it truly transcended what was a difficult, challenged life, fraught with problems. In a way, his music embodies an optimism that is culturally endemic in the Caribbean Hispanic experience. We don’t have a woe is me kind of culture. There are challenges and poverty, but through music there’s an escapism that reaches beyond the notion of I’m going to take a breather from my life.” It actually becomes culturally relevant. I think Hctor is one of the first folk heroes to come out of popular entertainment in the Latino vernacular, and by virtue of that, he has a very, very central place in Latino folk history.”

Marc Anthony

Lopez had but one candidate for the part of Hctor Lavoe: salsa superstar Marc Anthony, who re-shaped and revitalized the genre with his 1993 solo debut, Otra Nota. Lopez and Anthony had worked together previously, performing a duet of “Ne Ames” for Lopez’s 1999 debut album, On the 6.

Besides being a singer, Anthony had also established himself as an actor, with credits including the hit independent film BIG NIGHT and Paul Simon’s Broadway musical, “The Capeman.” ” From the moment I got the script, I said, ‘Nobody can play this but Marc Anthony,’ Lopez reports. “I called Marc and told him I was doing this project, and he said, ‘Hctor Lavoe, he’s my idol.'”

To Anthony, it’s difficult to overestimate Hctor Lavoe’s importance as a musical artist and cultural beacon. “He was our Bob Dylan,” says the singer/actor. “He spoke the language of the people. He wasn’t refined, was from the streets. He understood what it was like to be Puerto Rican in this country, to be lucky yet destructive at the same time.”

As it happened, Anthony had his own memories of the singer–and his playful personality. Early in his career, Anthony worked with New York producer and bandleader Little Louie Vega, who was Hctor Lavoe’s nephew. One day, Vega took Anthony then a teenager with long hair to meet his hero. Anthony describes the scene at the apartment, where Hctor Lavoe was watching TV in the living room. “Louie introduced me and Hctor said hello without looking away from the set. I sat down next to him on the couch and we watched TV together for a while. Finally he looked over at me, gasped, and said in Spanish, ‘My god, that’s the ugliest woman I’ve ever seen!'” Anthony laughs. “That was my introduction to the famous Hctor Lavoe sense of humor.”

Leon Ichaso

To direct the project, Lopez, Caro and their fellow producer, Simon Fields, tapped award-winning Cuban-born filmmaker Leon Ichaso, who has explored the Latino experience in films including EL SUPER, BITTER SUGAR, and the biopic PIERO.

Ichaso was a longtime salsa fan, having followed the music since moving to New York in 1967, the year “El Malo” was released. He began his film career directing Spanish-language television commercials, recording the ads jingles with salsa musicians including Yomo Toro, who recorded with Hctor Lavoe and is a master of the Puerto Rican guitar, the cuatro. Ichaso went on to direct a film about salsa, 1985’s acclaimed CROSSOVER DREAMS, which he wrote specifically for its star, singer/composer Ruben Blades, who wrote the song “El Cantante” for Hctor Lavoe.

In re-working the film’s screenplay for EL CANTANTE, Ichaso was able to draw on his familiarity with salsa’s evolution and flowering. He notes that the music took shape amid the creative ferment and changing dynamics of the mid-60s, as popular music became more overtly political; opposition to the Vietnam War mounted; and the civil rights movement grew to encompass different minorities who began organizing and demanding changes to the status quo. “Salsa was an answer to the times, parallel to what was happening in the rest of the culture,” comments Ichaso.

“These young salsa musicians understood the sense of change and rebellion that the 60s ushered in, which touched on ethnicity and welcomed everyone to join in. These guys said, we can do our thing, with our own roots. They were using the mambo and the rumba and the cha-cha, the plena, and the old stuff, but they were giving it a new kick, making it jazzier, introducing new elements. They were playing on the streets of the Lower East Side, experimenting as much as the rock & roll acts playing a few blocks down the street at the Fillmore East.”

He continues, “These young guys were keeping a culture alive, even though some of them never been to Puerto Rico. It was fascinating how some people just retained that heritage or discovered it, in some cases. When Willie Colon met Hctor Lavoe, he hardly spoke Spanish. But Hctor brought the island with him: he oozed Puerto Rico.”

Hctor Lavoe’s music is threaded throughout EL CANTANTE, and includes both collaborations by Colon and Hctor Lavoe, and songs written entirely by Hctor Lavoe. Ichaso found nuances in the songs he had missed the first time around.

Says the filmmaker, “It was a rediscovery for me. Until I got into this project, I had never noticed the poetry, the use of images in those songs. They were prophetic, some of them. Hctor sang about his life, his death, his lucky day. So in the film, the songs became little chapters about Hctor’s life.”

EL CANTANTE sets Hctor Lavoe’s life against a vivid backdrop of his times: the hopeful 1960s, the hedonistic 1970s and the increasingly dark 1980s. It views his rise and fall through the prism of his relationship with Puchi.

Puchi’s Jennifer Lopez

Hctor Lavoe’s widow passed away in 2002, before Lopez could meet her. However, the actress-producer was able to obtain CDs of the interviews Puchi gave about Hctor and spent hours reviewing them. “I believe Puchi had a very hard life and lived with a lot of pain. But she was very strong; she was one of those people that says what she thinks and is not afraid to fight,” Lopez comments. “I talked to people who said, ‘I hated Puchi, she was horrible. If it wasn’t for her, he might have gotten clean.’ And I’d say, ‘But if it wasn’t for her, he might not have lived more than five years with his drug habit.”

“She was the one who was always pulling him out of those shooting galleries, giving him something to come back to. I’m not saying they were good for each other–I don’t think they were. He was insanely jealous, she was insanely jealous; they were enabling each other with the drugs. Hctor and Puchi loved each other to death but I do believe they loved each other.”

Lopez relished the opportunity to explore this complex and at times unsympathetic character. “Puchi was the most challenging part I’ve ever played, and I don’t think I could have done it before this time in my life,” she reflects. “Five, ten years ago, I wasn’t ready to play a part like this. You have to be so free, so confident and ready to live in that moment; I wasn’t there as an actress yet. I had to be the character that says, ‘I don’t care if they like me or not. I love Hctor, I’m going to save Hctor, I’m here for Hctor. And that’s it.’ I couldn’t worry about whether people were gonna love Puchi or not. It wasn’t about that. It was about telling the honest story.”

In preparing for the role of Hctor Lavoe, Anthony pored over interviews and studied Hctor Lavoe’s LPs and filmed performances. “I understood him as a musician first, and what his drive was,” Anthony explains. “Then in analyzing his music and the material that he chose and what he chose to sing about, I saw that he was reaching out in a very unique way. When a lot of musicians were singing about how great life was and dancing all night, Hctor was talking about how painful life can be.”

Anthony notes that Hctor Lavoe’s introduction to drugs came in the 1960s, when usage became far more commonplace and drugs like LSD were seen as creative tools by many types of artists. “Drugs were part of the times,” he reflects. “It was the period of free love, free everything. No one saw anything bad with it, but Hctor had a very addictive personality. And many reasons to want to escape.”

Shooting in Puerto Rico

Production on EL CANTANTE began on December 5, 2005, and took place over the course of 33 days in New York City and Puerto Rico, wrapping the first week of February 2006. Ichaso praises Anthony and Lopez for their intense commitment to their roles. “Most people know Marc as a singer, and some have seen him in films, but people won’t be ready for this. When you see him onstage, at times it’s like there’s just one person: Marc becomes Hctor, Hctor becomes Marc. Everything is in his eyes–the joy, the drama. Also, like Hctor, Marc has incredible comedic timing. He’s a natural.”

He describes Lopez’s performance as fearless: “She is rougher, more vulgar and raw, than any Jennifer we’ve seen before. Puchi is defiant. She smokes, she does blow. There was nothing that would stop Jennifer from being this character in every way: the way she dressed, the way she behaved, the interplay with Hctor. All of that was very, very difficult and yet she did it with precision. A lot of actors, actresses, singers might have some vanity. But she shed the vanity to make sure she was playing Puchi as she really was.”

Anthony re-recorded Hctor Lavoe’s songs for the film, accompanied by professional musicians who included former members of the Hctor Lavoe Orquestra and the Willie Colon Orquestra. The Madison Square Garden concert sequences were filmed in Puerto Rico, an occasion that served as a potent reminder of how strongly audiences identified with Hctor Lavoe. The public had been invited to serve as extras, and the filmmakers were prepared to shoot quickly.

“Audiences usually get itchythey’re hungry, they want to go to the bathroom, and so on,” explains Ichaso. “Well, these people came dressed in period clothing. They came with Hctor Lavoe’s banners. And flags, and T-shirts: the works. They were so happy; some of them were in tears. Then, without being cued, they started chanting: “Hctor! Hctor! Hctor!” And it grew, and then the chanting became, “I am Puerto Rican and don’t you forget it! I am Puerto Rican, and don’t you ever forget it! We were like, Wow. For sure, this was a powerful movement.”

Many of Hctor Lavoe’s friends and colleagues participated in the filming, including three members of the Fania All Stars: singer Ismael Miranda, who plays Hctor Lavoe’s father; cuatro player Yomo Toro; and congo virtuoso Eddie Montalvo. Izzy Zanabria, a graphic artist who coined the term “salsa” and published the music magazine Latin NY, appears as a concert emcee. Says Ichaso, “A lot of people came to the table. They were part of salsa then, and they’re part of this film now. Everybody came to take their hats off to Hctor.”

“It was an honor to play Hctor Lavoe,” affirms Marc Anthony. “To me, he was almost a sacrificial lamb, that one guy who would represent and be loved by legions of fans but lived the most painful life imaginable. That’s just what he was born to be.”