Jennifer Lopez is the new Barbra Streisand. No, old Butta Babs can still act and sing rings around this entertainment wannabe. No, where J-Lo matches the Oscar winning diva is in the oversized ego department. Rumors of her self-importance have long been legendary, but no reported hubris can match the outright narcissism of El Cantante, the overwrought biopic of New York salsa king Hector Lavoe. Yes, you read that right. Somehow, a movie centering on a charismatic yet troubled Puerto Rican vocalist who helped bring Latin music to the mainstream, has somehow turned into a vanity project for the questionable talents of the ersatz artist formerly known as ‘Bennifer’. Instead of concentrating on what made Lavoe an icon amongst his people, what we end up with is a Hispanic Taming of the Shrew where the title humanizing never occurs. In fact, a better name for this movie would have been Sid and Nancita.
In one of the most awkward narrative devices possible, we meet the former Mrs. Lavoe, a firebrand biz-nitch named Puchi, during a supposed 2002 interview. She is there to tell her side of the story, about how she met a meek little talent named Hector Perez and guided him through the jaded jungles of the music industry to create a crossover superstar. Jumping around in time and from personal perspective to perspective, we learn that Hector lost his mother when he was five, and started singing to give ‘voice to his pain’, or so his father said. Lured to New York like his dead beat, drug dealing brother, the future phenomenon meets the booty dancing hot stuff one night at a club. Before you know it, the two are inseparable, smoking cigarettes and screaming at each other in Spanish. Lavoe hooks up with another popular performer, they take Manhattan by storm, and then decide fame is too much fun. So Lavoe lets his wife ruin his life, he turns to heroin, and eventually dies of AIDs.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, and director Leon Ichaso can’t handle it all. To be fair, it’s a task no filmmaker could manage. To understand the importance of Lavoe and the music he made, you have to focus on his life story, the history of Hispanic music in America, the growing tide of Latino pride in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the ‘deal with the devil’ intricacies of the era’s music industry, and the psychological lure of drugs and self-destructive behavior. And then you have to add that bitter banshee on wheels, Puchi. Given the fact that Ms. Lopez and her third husband, Mr. Anthony, are in the leads, we assume more time will be spent with the couple. But Ichaso doesn’t know how to deal with them, and that’s when a certain female pop poseur takes over. The camera constantly focuses on J-Lo. When Lavoe is hurting, we get HER reactions. When Lavoe is singing, we see HER response. When Lavoe is strung out on drugs, we are awarded HER emotional unease. While it seems surreal, Hector Lavoe is actually a stranger in his own life story.
And that’s really too bad, cause if we learn anything from this lumbering biography it’s that Marc Anthony can sure carry a tune. In fact, if you find clips of Lavoe on the Web, you’ll swear the man playing him has a much better set of pipes. Selling every song with passion and power (even though Ichaso stoops to subtitling the lyrics, as if his actor’s interpretation is not enough), this is one chart topper who can actually deliver the goods. He may be rather lightweight in the dramatic moments, but we merely chalk it up to the character’s offstage persona. Sadly, El Cantante reduces Lavoe to a series of suicidal standards — addicted to dope, unhappy in life, confined in marriage — and yet when Anthony stands up to sing another song, we forgive him his collection of clichés.
Ms. Lopez, on the other hand, has no such safety net. She just goes out there on a ludicrous limb each and every time, delivering her domineering dialogue like someone crowned her queen of the she-devils. There is not a single redeeming aspect to her overdone, manipulative ‘mamacita’. In one scene, where Anthony’s Lavoe simply wants to watch his son dance, Jenny from the Block does everything she can to drive him to distraction. When he picks up the present his kid gave him and throws it to the floor, we forget the implied sentimental value of the item, and hope a shard or two lodged in Puchi’s voice-box. In many ways, she’s the Puerto Rican version of Norbit’s Rasputia — loud, crude, vindictive, and absolutely irredeemable. While the script and direction definitely drag El Cantante down, the portrait of Puchi in this film — true or false — places the final perfectly groomed and polished nails in the movie’s creative coffin.
There are other things that don’t work here, either. Throughout the first half of the film, the shady dealings of the managers and record labels behind Lavoe are hinted at and alluded to. Naturally, nothing comes of this. Similarly, the singer is described as being irresponsible, failing to show up to gigs and giving less than his all come show time. Yet every concert sequence is electrifyingly flawless, the crooner captivating his insanely loyal crowd. Even his nervous breakdown occurs off camera. Puchi discusses it, we see a brief scene of a zoned out Anthony, and then the couple is cooing over a backdrop of the Big Apple, relieved that everything is all right again. No Snake Pit freak out. No straight jacket screeching for this quickly cured basket case. In some ways, a docudrama with Lavoe’s story told via interviews, with Anthony recreating his presence on stage, would have worked a heck of a lot better than this Punch and Judy joke. If we wanted to see spouse’s spar with each other, we’d simply turn on Lifetime — or Dateline NBC.
It is clear that fans of this man and his music will have very little problem with the way they are portrayed in El Cantante. Lavoe comes across as a stained saint, and his presence on stage and in front of a microphone is solid. That just leaves Puchi as scapegoat for all the sorrow in his life — and isn’t it odd that Jennifer Lopez is left holding this particular bag. Maybe this is some kind of karmic payback for all the rotten things she’s rumored to have done over the last few years. From fiancés left in her wake,to full blown diva tantrums over insignificant petty issues, she’s singlehandedly destroyed any legitimacy she had as an artist. While one can blame the tabloids all they want, the proof of her unbridled hubris is plastered all over every frame of El Cantante. We were supposed to learn about how an earnest immigrant singer overcame obstacles to redefine salsa for the ‘70s. Instead, we discover that Jennifer Lopez is one out of control ogre — and that Marc Anthony will have a solid career, with or without her.