Let's start with the strongest point about El Cantante, the joint effort of real-life married couple Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony to bring to life the story of salsa legend Héctor Lavoe: JLo turns in a decent performance as Lavoe's wife. There, I said it -- and I know without even looking at any other reviews that a lot of critics will either outright disagree or gloss over her contribution to the film, but this is the closest I've seen her come to fulfilling the promise she showed way back in Out of Sight in 1998, and it's nice to see her in good form. Unfortunately, El Cantante -- at least as the title implies -- is about Lavoe, not his wife, but the movie focuses at least as much on the wife of the King of Salsa as it does on the man after whom it's titled, and that's one of the film's weaknesses.
El Cantante takes the life of a fascinating and complex man and waters it down into a decidedly uninspiring and vanilla biopic that does nothing to push the boundaries of the genre or make us want to see further efforts to bring the tales of famous, troubled singers to life. Part of the problem is that, while Lavoe's story is historically significant to fans of salsa music, and he undoubtedly influenced the genre and contributed to it greatly, there's just not much in his personal life -- at least as it's presented in this film -- that's unique among famous musicians. Troubled relationships with family and friends, drama in his relationship with his wife, Puchi, the inevitable drug addiction (seriously, are there any famous musicians out there who haven't struggled with drug addiction?), and the inevitable trajectory of rise and fall of fame and fortune, just aren't that compelling in and of themselves anymore.
The trouble with biopics is that you have to make them interesting, even to moviegoers who might not previously have known or cared about the person whose story is being told onscreen. The story has to be told in a way that makes it intriguing; Ray did a good job of this, by showing us enough of Ray Charles' life and personal demons to make us care about him as more than just another musician who had problems; Walk the Line, likewise, worked not just because Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon did believable jobs of mimicking their subjects, but because the story of Johnny Cash and his relationship with June Carter was both compelling and dramatized such that it made us empathize and care for them as people, not just performers.
El Cantante falls short in that respect, largely because we don't learn enough about Lavoe the person, as opposed to Lavoe the legend, to really care about what happens to him. This is partly because Lavoe is shown to us primarily from the perspective of his wife, Puchi, rather than the more neutral perspective of am unbiased biographer. I suspect this decision was made largely to give Lopez a starring role opposite her husband; from the beginning, the film lets us know that this is Lopez's film and Puchi's story; it opens with Puchi being filmed for a documentary about her marriage to Lavoe, with Lopez looking decidedly unglamorous and using the "F" word more than we've ever heard from her onscreen.
JLo's playing tough here -- Puchi, like "Jenny from the Block," was a tough Bronx-born girl (a matter of some class importance to Lavoe's Puerto Rico-born sister) who, judging from the film, reveled in the fast lane-life of being married to a famous man. Puchi may have dressed in designer clothes and dripped with jewels during the glory days of her husband's career, but toward the end of her own life, after Lavoe's death, she is portrayed by Lopez as hardened, cynical and tough, the street showing through the former veneer of glam, flashy clothes and culture. Even during Lavoe's concert scenes, we see as much of Puchi dancing around on the edge of the stage in low-cut dresses as we do of the man people paid to see perform. Whether this was true of the real Puchi, I can't say, but as she's shown in this film, Puchi Lavoe was a woman who loved her husband fiercely in spite of his flaws and drug addiction, sought to stand in the limelight of his fame, supported his addictions through her own drug use, codependency, and desire to maintain their lifestyle, and ultimately watched her great love affair unwind into tragedy, despair, and collapsing finances.
Anthony, who is himself a famous salsa singer, does a passable enough job as Lavoe -- he sings and performs believably enough, and he and Lopez have enough chemistry onscreen to pull off the often tumultuous relationship between Lavoe and Puchi. Still, the overall impact is just bland and uninspiring; we're not breaking any new ground in the musical biopic genre here. The script feels like a cookie-cutter version of the musical biopic: Troubled relationship with father? Check. Fiery romance fraught with jealously and infidelity? Check. The inevitable experimentation with drugs, followed by addiction and all its downfalls, including infection with HIV from dirty needles? Check. Tragedy followed by tragedy as things start to fall apart? Check. And so on.
Unfortunately, the film is so focused on Lavoe and Puchi that it glosses over those aspects of the story that would have more humanized Lavoe as an individual and made the story more interesting. I wanted to see more of what drove the man -- why did Lavoe, who'd lost his own brother to drug addiction, and whose move to New York isolated him from his father, turn to drug use himself? El Cantante largely presents Lavoe's addiction as the problem, rather than whatever inside Lavoe drove him to become an addict and sustain that addiction. It does touch on the codependent nature of his relationship with his wife -- there's one telling moment where the documentarian, interviewing Puchi shortly before her own death, wryly notes that maybe she didn't really want Lavoe to change because she liked their lifestyle -- that probably comes closer to truth than anything else in the film. More moments like that would have made for a better and more dramatic film.
Lavoe was certainly a character, although his professional troubles -- chronic lateness resulting from his drug addictions, the impact that had on his friends and bandmates, including longtime partner Willie Colón, and their inevitable tiring of putting up with it -- are hardly unique to him. The Troubled Famous Musician has become such a cliché that really, it would be more interesting at this point to see a biopic about a famous person who didn't fall prey to the pitfalls of fame than yet another tale of tragedy and woe. Bottom line, there's just not enough in Lavoe's story as El Cantante presents it to help it rise above the fray and fascinate.