EL CANTANTE
© 2007 by C.E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
A noted figure in Latin music, Héctor Lavoe was
a pioneer of the sound that came to be termed
native Puerto Rico, relocated to Manhattan and,
after teaming with Willie Colón, achieved fame
and fortune. Like many artists, Lavoe's life was
not an easy one and
EL CANTANTE, the film
biography written by David Darmstaedter & Todd
Anthony Bello with an assist from director Leon
Ichaso, follows the course of a rags to riches to
tragedy trajectory that many other similar
projects follow. What elevates this film above
the usual fare are the lead performances and
most especially the music.

EL CANTANTE works on multiple levels and
while there are flaws in the script, it takes a
particular tack that some people miss. While the
film is framed with reminiscences by Lavoe's
wife "Puchi" (portrayed by Jennifer Lopez), the
scenes often contradict her memories or depict
moments to which she would not have been
privy. In some ways, that is the genius of the
movie as it presents a dual portrait of Lavoe --
the one filtered through Puchi's memories (which
are more forgiving, as would be expected) and
the reality of the situation. While not as clever
as a Tom Stoppard play, the idea makes for an
intriguing look at the performer.

As Ichaso has done in previous biopics -- the
made for television movies
ALI: AN AMERICAN
HERO
and HENDRIX and the big screen
PIÑERO, a portrait of the Hispanic playwright --
he adopts a collage-like approach to the life.
Instead of taking a straightforward approach, he
tackles the subject from different angles. The
movie opens with an extended sequence as
Puchi frantically tries to locate her missing
husband and finds him in a crack den, shooting
heroin. She drags him into a limo, dresses him
and, for good measure, gives him a hit of
cocaine. When the car arrives at Madison Square
Garden, the audience sees that Lavoe is the
headliner.

Interspersed throughout the movie are
black-and-white shots of an older Puchi being
interviewed. In fact, she did agree to be
interviewed before her death and the recordings
provided fodder for the screenplay and assisted
star Jennifer Lopez in developing her character.

While at first, Marc Anthony doesn't quite
register as the youthful Lavoe -- he is curiously
callow and lacking in magnetism -- as soon as
he takes the stage and performs some of
Lavoe's signature musical numbers, he comes
alive. By the end of the movie, Anthony meets
the albeit limited demands of the screenplay.

The real surprise of the movie is Lopez. For so
long now, she has been tabloid fodder that
many will forget just how good an actress she
can be with the right material. With the role of
Puchi, she has found a part that allows her to
demonstrate her range and abilities. Since she
is also one of the film's producers and has been
shepherding this project for years, undoubtedly
she will bear the brunt of some misguided
criticism. Puchi emerges as a flamboyant,
vibrant personality and Lopez delivers some of
her best acting work in years.

The supporting cast is solid, with the standouts
being John Ortiz as Willie Colón, Romi Davis as
Lavoe's sister Priscilla, Federico Castelluccio as
Jerry Masucci, one of the founders of Fania
Records, and a cameo appearance by Victor
Manuelle as Ruben Blades.

In addition to the strong acting,
EL CANTANTE
relies on the music and Lavoe's signature songs
have been recreated beautifully. Anthony sings
the songs with verve and skill and lovers of
Latin music may want to seek out the film's
soundtrack to appreciate the performances again
and again.

EL CANTANTE does have its flaws -- the story
of an artist who squanders his talents is not a
new one -- but the milieu of salsa music is a
novelty. Ichaso's impressionistic style may not
appeal to everyone either, but it feels organic
and appropriate. If nothing else, the movie may
spur new generations to seek out Lavoe's music
and for that it deserves notice.



Rating:                 B
MPAA Rating:        R for drug use,
                           pervasive language
                           and some sexuality
Running time:`      116 mins.
Marc Anthony as Héctor Lavoe and Jennifer Lopez as
Puchi (Nilda Georgina Román) in
EL CANTANTE,
directed by Leon Ichaso.
Courtesy of Nuyorican Productions and R-Caro Productions
Photo credit: Eric Liebowitz
© 2007 Picturehouse. All Rights Reserved.
Willie Colón

Héctor