El Cantante

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.

RATING 3 / 10