Hector Lavoe is no Ray Charles and El Cantante is no Ray, though it tries to be. Their stories are similar: both were musical pioneers, drug addicts and adulterers. But Charles, as a songwriter, performer and bandleader, created an incredible body of work.Lavoe, however, whose stage name was changed from the more common Perez, is presented as just a voice, a vessel for the incessant salsa music that dominated Latin-American communities in New York and Miami in the permissive 1970s.
Marc Anthony plays Lavoe as the tortured artist. His mother died in Puerto Rico, where he was born, and his father disowned him because of his drug use. Unfortunately, there’s not much Hector here in Anthony’s superficial portrayal. He’s neither sympathetic nor despicable, just a lost soul in a sea of coke, alcohol and sycophants.
The problem with El Cantante is that it’s not really about Hector Lavoe. The real star of the movie is his loudmouth, gum-snapping Bronx-born wife, Puchi, as depicted by Jennifer Lopez. She displays a full range of emotions, but her shrillness ultimately turns Hector (and perhaps moviegoers) off to the point that he stops coming home.
Periodically seen in black and white discussing her life with Hector in an interview after his death, a la Factory Girl, she’s forlorn. But, in blazing technicolor, Puchi spends the bulk of the movie dancing, partying and having sex — the classic ’70s cocktail. Thankfully, Lopez never sings.
Musicially, El Cantante achieves its goal of mimicking Ray with kinetic stage productions. Willie Colon’s great salsa band backs Lavoe, whose fluid voice (Anthony does a terrific job singing throughout) sets up the long instrumental jams that will have you wiggling in your seat.
El Cantante is a typical biopic with a predictable story arc from good times to bad times and finally to the subject’s death. Due to J-Lo’s involvement – she’s a producer as well – it also has the distinct stink of a vanity project. Director Leon Ichaso (Pinero) may have had the best of intentions, but after watching this nearly two-hour tribute, you won’t know much more about Hector Lavoe than when you entered the theater.
Opens August 3