Reviews

El Cantante

Josh Timmermann

Every bit the camp classic that Gigli was supposed to be. El Cantante is nothing if not a generously budgeted, extended music video.


El Cantante

Director: Leon Ichaso
Cast: Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Federico Castelluccio, Romi Dias, Vincent Laresca
Distributor: New LIne
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Picturehouse
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2007-10-30
Website

Okay, so let’s get this out of the way upfront here, Gigli wasn’t a bad movie. It wasn’t quite a good movie either, granted. But its abysmal, Ishtar-esque reputation and Razzie awards have much less to do with the film itself, which is probably a slight cut above most studio star vehicles, than with a public and critical backlash against the off-screen over-saturation of all things Bennifer. After months of E! Channel and tabloid ubiquity, the finished product frankly didn’t stand a chance of getting a fair shake.

El Cantante, the latest on-screen teaming of J. Lo with her real-life romantic partner (in this case, husband Marc Anthony), is a bad movie, hence my numerical rating of ‘3’ at the bottom of this review. Yet that’s also kind of beside the point because what El Cantante lacks in conventional quality it more than makes up for with camp pleasures. That shouldn’t necessarily comes as a surprise, and in this regard, El Cantante is every bit the VH1 drinking game classic that Gigli was supposed to be, but wasn’t. What is somewhat surprising is the unusual means by which this movie achieves camp sublimity.

The acting is mostly pretty solid, especially Anthony who delivers a sensitive, charismatic performance as Salsa innovator Hector Lavoe that’s probably better than this movie deserves. Lopez isn’t as good, but she’s passable. My biggest gripe with J. Lo the actress has long been that she never really challenges our idea of who Jennifer Lopez is. She comes closest here, clearly playing against type as Lavoe’s four-letter word-dropping, chain-smoking, coke-snorting wife, Puchi, though one often gets the sense that she’s simply taken close notes from the Halle Berry/Charlize Theron playbook. Still, there’s always been a muted icy quality to Lopez’s public persona, and it’s refreshing to see her overtly tap into that here.

The writing, or at least the dialogue, isn’t terrible either, though there are some laughable lines scattered throughout. Rather, what qualifies El Cantante as camp, without getting too Sontagian here, is the bizarre structural strategy that director Leon Ichaso employs in charting Lavoe’s life story. This feels uncannily like the logical end-point of the Hollywood biopic, barreling full speed ahead down a road well paved by recent efforts like Ray and Walk the Line. The film is constructed entirely in shorthand signifiers that, at first, seem par for the course, and then feel disorienting as you start to wonder whether there’ll ever be a scene that isn’t intended to represent a year or phase in Lavoe’s career. In the end the signifiers are just hilarious, if you allow yourself to give in to this very idiosyncratic film’s complete lack of narrative rhythm and logical character arcs.

In one scene, for example, we see Lavoe’s son tuck a handgun inside in the waist of his pants. Then Ichaso cuts to his funeral. At a party near the beginning of the film, Puchi convinces Lavoe, who appears to be pushing 40, to try weed for the first time. He vomits, and tells a friend the next day that he doesn’t want to mess with drugs. A few scenes later, he’s a full-on junkie. Sloppily assembled montages of faux archival footage are meant to connect the fuzzy dots in Lavoe’s ascent to fame. Passing references to Puchi’s inability to speak Spanish allude to the de-Latinification of Latin American (specifically Puerto Rican) culture in the United States (specifically New York). It’s a potentially provocative concept that El Cantante flirts with, but never investigates with any real energy.

For good measure, Ichaso also incorporates just about every flashy, film school technical flourish you could think of with sped-up, blurry photography, for example, obviously standing in for a drug user’s point-of-view. Some of the musical performances, which are indeed exciting, are accompanied by on-screen English text, while others aren’t. (I suppose the songs that are translated are intended to spell out what’s going on, at the time, in Lavoe’s life, though they mostly just left me curious about how this technique was handled in Spanish-speaking markets.) The volatile nature of the film’s central relationship, meanwhile, is expressed through a few Cassavetes-style domestic blow-ups, painting Hector and Puchi as the Puerto Rican Sid and Nancy.

And by Cassavetes, I don’t mean John. I mean Nick, who directed the melodramatic, Scarlett Johansson-starring clip for Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around…Comes Around”, which only makes sense. El Cantante is nothing if not a generously budgeted, extended music video. That medium has always relied on symbolic abbreviation in condensing a narrative into four or five rapidly edited minutes. El Cantante squeezes a couple messy, complicated, eventful lives into under two hours. Bravo?

The DVD release includes audio commentary by Ichaso and writers Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter and a making-of featurette called “The Sound and the Heat of El Cantante“, in which Lopez and Anthony offer insight into their characterizations, and we the audience learn considerably more about Lavoe’s life, career, and enduring significance than we did from watching the actual film in question.

3

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Film

The Dance of Male Forms in Denis' 'Beau travail'

Claire Denis' masterwork of cinematic poetry, Beau travail, is a cinematic ballet that tracks through tone and style the sublimation of violent masculine complexes into the silent convulsions of male angst.

Music

The Cradle's 'Laughing in My Sleep' Is an Off-kilter Reflection of Musical Curiosity

The Cradle's Paco Cathcart has curated a thoughtfully multifarious album. Laughing in My Sleep is an impressive collection of 21 tracks, each unapologetic in their rejection of expectations.

Music

Tobin Sprout Goes Americana on 'Empty Horses'

During the heyday of Guided By Voices, Tobin Sprout wasn't afraid to be absurd amongst all that fuzz. Sprout's new album, Empty Horses, is not the Tobin Sprout we know.

Film

'All In: The Fight for Democracy' Spotlights America's Current Voting Restrictions as Jim Crow 2.0

Featuring an ebullient and combative Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy shows just how determined anti-democratic forces are to ensure that certain groups don't get access to the voting booth.

Music

'Transgender Street Legend Vol. 2' Finds Left at London "At My Peak and Still Rising"

"[Pandemic lockdown] has been a detriment to many people's mental health," notes Nat Puff (aka Left at London) around her incendiary, politically-charged new album, "but goddamn it if I haven't been making some bops here and there!"

Music

Daniel Romano's 'How Ill Thy World Is Ordered' Is His Ninth LP of 2020 and It's Glorious

No, this is isn't a typo. Daniel Romano's How Ill Thy World Is Ordered is his ninth full-length release of 2020, and it's a genre-busting thrill ride.

Music

The Masonic Travelers Offer Stirring Rendition of "Rock My Soul" (premiere)

The Last Shall Be First: the JCR Records Story, Volume 1 captures the sacred soul of Memphis in the 1970s and features a wide range of largely forgotten artists waiting to be rediscovered. Hear the Masonic Travelers "Rock My Soul".

Music

GLVES Creates Mesmerizing Dark Folktronica on "Heal Me"

Australian First Nations singer-songwriter GLVES creates dense, deep, and darkish electropop that mesmerizes with its blend of electronics and native sounds on "Heal Me".

Music

Otis Junior and Dr. Dundiff Tells Us "When It's Sweet" It's So Sweet

Neo-soul singer Otis Junior teams with fellow Kentuckian Dr. Dundiff and his hip-hop beats for the silky, groovy "When It's Sweet".

Music

Lars and the Magic Mountain's "Invincible" Is a Shoegazey, Dreamy Delight (premiere)

Dutch space pop/psychedelic band Lars and the Magic Mountain share the dreamy and gorgeous "Invincible".

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.

Music

Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.

Music

The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".

Music

Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.

Books

Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.