'El Cantante' follows life, music of Puerto Rican superstar

by Jordan Levin

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

3 August 2007


Even his name meant music.

Hector Lavoe’s real last name was Perez. Lavoe was invented, a Puerto Ricanized pronunciation of “la voz” - “the voice” in Spanish. Hector Lavoe was the voice of salsa, the singer of a new kind of Latin music for a new generation of Latinos in the United States.

cover art

El Cantante

Director: Leon Ichaso
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Federico Castelluccio, Romi Dias, Vincent Laresca

US theatrical: 3 Aug 2007 (General release)

Review [29.Oct.2007]
Review [4.Aug.2007]
Review [3.Aug.2007]

One of his most famous songs was “El Cantante,” The Singer, and another was “Mi Gente,” My People. He died in 1993, at 46, poor and devastated by AIDS, drug addiction and terrible personal losses.

But the intensity of his talent and his tragic death turned Hector Lavoe into a kind of universal icon of musical rebellion. Today he’s idolized in the hip-hop world, by Latin rockers and “reggaetoneros,” by people who never heard or saw him live. He’s like Che Guevara and Jimi Hendrix rolled into one - a larger-than-life counterculture image both vague and charismatic.

The movie “El Cantante,” is the first significant attempt to spotlight this major figure of Latino culture and one of its most dynamic, least documented musical eras.

It features two of this country’s biggest Latino stars, salsa singer Marc Anthony as Lavoe, and his wife Jennifer Lopez as Lavoe’s wife Puchi. Those involved hope the film will help tell mainstream audiences who Lavoe was and why he mattered.

“He was our Bob Dylan, our Johnny Cash, our Jim Morrison,” says Anthony. “He was ours, and his music was just as significant as everyone I’ve mentioned. He moved a generation, he moved a race. His music is just as visible today as when it came out. Those are the true signs of an icon.”

“It’s a marker and tribute to that sort of forgotten time,” says “El Cantante” director Leon Ichaso, whose other films include 1985’s” Crossover Dreams,” starring Ruben Blades, and 2001’s “Pinero,” about the doomed Puerto Rican poet.

“Salsa in the United States has become not only a nostalgic thing - if you say salsa they think you’re talking about nacho dip. We live in fast times, frivolous times. If it has to do with the past, what’s the value? So people are going to discover a lot of stuff.”

Lavoe was born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, one of eight children of a guitarist father - played by famed salsa singer Ismael Miranda in the movie - and a mother who died when Hector was only 5. He began singing around the same time, and dropped out of school in his early teens. In 1963, when he was 17, he went to New York City against his dad’s wishes.

His career took off in 1967, when he hooked up with 16-year-old bandleader and trombonist Willie Colon for their debut recording “El Malo.”

The duo became one of the stars of an explosive new Latin genre dubbed salsa, and Lavoe was its most compelling voice. He was a supremely confident and talented improviser, a Lenny Bruce of salsa who could take the music to brilliant heights and engage instantaneously with the audience. Spontaneity was the source of his artistry. Colon remembers songwriting sessions where lyrics poured out of Lavoe, and how he could nail a recording in a single day.

“It’s a gift that he had of being able to associate ideas and words very quickly,” says Colon. “He was a genius. He knew what he could do better than anyone.”

Audiences identified with Lavoe’s freewheeling, down-to-earth persona, his wit, his struggles, his proudly Puerto Rican identity, the sense that he was himself onstage. From the time he went solo in 1975 and through the mid-1980s, he was incredibly popular, selling out Madison Square Garden and stadiums throughout Latin America.

“He was a phenomenon,” says Rene Lopez, who worked at Fania Records, Lavoe’s label, and saw Lavoe perform a number of times. “It was beyond what I could comprehend, the connection people had with him. There was absolute joy at seeing him, rapture almost - it was incredible. There was a link there, almost like magic.”

But starting in the late 1960s, Lavoe’s ability to go to the edge also took him into what would be a fatal addiction to heroin. He would come to recording sessions high, show up hours late to concerts, or sometimes not at all.

In 1977 he was committed to the first of several stays at Creedmoor Psychiatric Institute in Queens. His relationship with his wife, Nilda “Puchi” Roman, became contentious.

In 1987 the couple’s son, Hector Jr., 17, was killed in an accidental shooting. That same year, after a concert in Puerto Rico was canceled for poor attendance, Lavoe fell from his 9th floor hotel balcony, surviving what seemed to many to be a suicide attempt.

The singer began to lose his optimism after his son died. “That one hit him dead center,” says David Maldonado, who was Lavoe’s road manager in the 1980s and is the producer of “El Cantante.”

Lavoe brought even this sorrow onstage. “One gig he broke my heart. He was saying tomorrow is Father’s Day, and he stops the band and starts talking about his boy,” Maldonado says. “This is a nightclub, and there’s silence and the owner is telling me, `Tell him to sing - he’s gonna bring this crowd down.’ “

The following year his album, “Hector Lavoe Strikes Back,” earned a Grammy nomination, but Lavoe was also diagnosed with AIDS. He continued to use heroin and, with increasingly disastrous results, to perform. By the time the disease killed him in 1993, he was poor and alone, an emaciated, crippled wreck who would still ask for a cigarette from his hospice bed.

Thousands of mourners lined up for two days to pay tribute at his funeral in New York, culminating in a five-hour procession.

Maldonado produced an off-Broadway show, “Quien Mato a Hector Lavoe?” (Who Killed Hector Lavoe?), in 2001. But the movie is based on a screenplay he and writer Todd Anthony Bello developed through interviews with Puchi. Puchi never saw the results, dying in an accident a few months after Lopez’s production company bought the rights to Lavoe’s story.

Lopez offered the part of Lavoe to Anthony, whose thin physique and powerful voice have earned him comparisons to Lavoe and who worked with Lavoe’s nephew, producer Little Louie Vega.

Despite the film’s numerous real-life links to Lavoe, people close to the singer say it focuses too much on his addiction and is too centered on Puchi and the couple’s relationship.

“Puchi was one of the worst things that ever happened to Lavoe,” says Colon, who says he was a paid consultant on the film but his suggestions were ignored. “They had to sanitize her so J.Lo could play her. It’s almost impossible for Puchi to narrate this movie - half the stuff that happened, she wasn’t around.

“They didn’t touch on why was the music so successful, why was he so popular. I think they missed an opportunity to do Hector justice.”

At a press conference after “El Cantante’s” premiere in Puerto Rico last week, Lavoe and Puchi’s daughter, Leslie Perez; Domingo Quinones, who played Lavoe in the Off-Broadway show; and veteran Fania singer Cheo Feliciano complained of the focus on Lavoe’s dark side.

“I’m worried that it concentrates too much on the narcotics and drugs,” said Feliciano. “Hector gave so much and was such an important and complex human being that maybe they could have included more of his talent.”

Perhaps it’s inevitable that any portrayal of this outsized, complicated artist, who touched so many people, would be controversial. Or maybe the only person who could really capture Lavoe was the singer himself. If Lavoe were around, he’d probably rhyme some sly comments and enjoy the attention. At least people will be listening to him again, which is what he always loved.

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