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Brave, I tell ya. Say what you want about Jennifer Lopez - and I know you will - but you can’t deny the girl’s got stones. I could fill this entire review encompassing the miles of gossip that has swirled around Castle Hill’s most famous resident. I could scribble for hours musing on the low expectations predicating the release of El Cantante, most relevant being the ghosts of Gigli rattling around refusing to go into the light. Starring in an excruciatingly terrible vanity production with her current significant other might not have been her best career move, but damme if J-to-tha-L-O didn’t get right back on the horse and do it again! 


I would like to say that the one of the many differences between Gigli and El Cantante is the fact that it’s not a vanity production. During an interview I conducted with Lopez,  she said she first came across the El Cantante script five years ago and had been trying to get the film made ever since. This movie was clearly a passion for her. More’s the pity one of the biggest flaws of the film is her inclusion into nearly every scene in the film, turning El Cantante, allegedly the biography of Puerto Rican Salsa god, Hector Lavoe, into a Jennifer Lopez vehicle. 


The early scenes start off promisingly enough with young Hector singing with his father, a well-known orchestra guitarist in Puerto Rico. Against dad’s wishes and warnings, Hector decides to come to New York, where the wide-eyed jibaro (- country hick) immediately gets caught up in the thriving and progressive Puerto Rican music scene. Hector’s remarkable talents are immediately snatched up for the Fania music label and matched with New York-born Puerto Rican, Willie Colon, together mixing their love of classic Latin rhythms, jazz rock and R&B, the two lay the foundations for the new style of Latin music that will sweep the world for decades.  


Along the way, playing the clubs of New York, Hector runs into a hot piece of goods named Puchi (- nee Nilda), a tough, no-nonsense Bronx girl… hm…tough, no-nonsense girl from the Bronx… Why is that familiar? Almost immediately, Hector and Puchi are inseparable, and as Hector’s fortunes rise, they glory in the good life together. Sadly, if this was merely a story of Hector’s success, there would probably be no movie about him. It isn’t long before Hector’s long months of touring with Willie Colon and the Fania family take their toll and Hector picks up a few nasty habits along the way; not the least being his frequent tendency to stick needles full of narcotics into his veins. Once the smack is introduced, everything suffers, his relationship with Willie Colon, his relationship with his fans – both of whom are constantly let down by Hector’s unreliability and concert no shows, and his relationship with Puchi – which is portrayed here as a very odd thing indeed. There is never a pretense of fidelity with Hector and Puchi either before (- Another Hector girlfriend gives birth around the same time Puchi does) or after their darkly hilarious wedding – Puchi literally drags a drug-addled Hector up the aisle. Hector’s fortunes allow Puchi to indulge in her own love of cocaine, and Puchi can never be accused of spearheading the crusade to get her man the help he desperately needed – heck, she’s shown giving Hector his first joint. One very telling moment shows us Puchi lounging backstage at yet another concert where Hector has failed to show up. In their frustration at Puchi’s harangues, Hector’s tour manager asks anyone who’ll listen “Why is she here? Why isn’t she with Hector?” Fair point. Though El Cantante tries to do double duty as a sort of love story, the relationship between Hector and Puchi is symbiotic to and past the point of mutual self-destruction and borders on the edge of creepy.   


Herein lies the fly in the proverbial ointment, director Leon Ichaso’s choice to make Puchi as central to the story as Hector is. The entire film is told from Puchi’s point of view; she serves as narrator in black and white inserts throughout the film dated in 2002  (- Don’t get me started on the ridiculous aging make-up). Apart from those few moments before they met, and a few seconds away on tour, you never see Hector without Puchi and it doesn’t take very long before Puchi’s repellant tough-as-nails abrasiveness loses its novelty and just rides your last nerve. I couldn't help wishing she would just go away and I sat there wondering if Hector didn’t wish it, too, but there she is in scene after scene, at times dancing on the very stage where Hector and the Fania All-Stars are performing as if she were part of the act. (- I understand that the reality was Puchi would dance in the wings at many concerts, but the effect for those who aren’t aware just looks like JLo is just hogging up screen time and reliving her Fly Girl days.) Later, after Hector is inexorably driven to Creedmoor Sanitarium, Puchi finally visits him after many days away, painted to the gills, bling up the wazoo and enough dead animals draped over her to fill a pet cemetery. Hector’s sister seizes the moment to tell Puchi that she was exactly the reason why their father never wanted Hector to come to New York. She’s asked by her interviewers if she actually wanted Hector to get well, to which she has no answer. La Lopez’s Puchi comes off as a shrill harpy and had there been less of her, there would’ve been much more of the film to like. 


But there’s some really good stuff here, folks, namely the music. At those precious moments when El Cantante focuses on Hector as an artist, a crowd-pleaser and the “Singer of singers”, as he’s later known, the film is glorious. The concert sequences are bright, vibrant and alive. For those who are familiar with the music, the cinematography will bring them to a new appreciation by placing them right on stage with Hector; experiencing the excitement those live shows were known for. The scenes throb and thump with the vitality of the salsa music that Hector helped create. For the members of the audience who’ve been sadly deprived of this art form; El Cantante is a great primer, giving us some of the most famous of Lavoe’s songs and infusing them with the life and joy of having them sung excellently by Marc Anthony. 


I’m afraid that in all the static surrounding this film, notice for Marc Anthony’s wonderful performance as Hector Lavoe will be lost. Marc manages to infuse Hector with the humanity, humour and charm that made one understand why “everybody forgave his faults”, as Puchi says in one interview scene. Marc Anthony’s Hector is an easy-going, laid back country boy who only shows real strength and backbone when either on stage or on drugs. As it becomes clear that Hector simply has no one close to him to put him off his self-destructive course, you wonder if he was truly “put here to suffer” as it’s said in the film (- and Marc Anthony related in our interview). There don’t seem to be enough stages for him to play on to keep him away from Puchi, the drugs or any other distractions and you can’t help but wonder what might’ve been, and there is the heartbreak that makes his story so compelling. 


It’s not all bad, kids, and that’s the bottom line. If you can make it through the annoyance of Jennifer Lopez’s character you’ll be all right. Focus on the fantastic music, the beautiful camerawork (- which should be appropriated to promote tourism to Puerto Rico), the occasional funny moments (- intentional or not), and the wonderful performance by Marc Anthony. In answer to the question on many minds, in those precious few minutes when Puchi’s not making Hector’s life (- and ours) hell, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony do actually exhibit real chemistry on screen. El Cantante is not a perfect film by any means, but I think it goes a long way to introduce and pay respects to a man of great talent and tragedy known by so many and so few.
 
 
~ The Lady Miz Diva/Mighty Ganesha
July 28th, 2007
 

 

 

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