Saturday, August 4, 2007

El Cantante (2007) Review

With all the fuss I've raised over El Cantante (including uploading the entire Hector Lavoe discography), you can bet I was there opening day to revel in the glory of seeing Hector Lavoe's life adapted to the big screen. So what did I think? A very haphazardly put together review follows. If you don't want spoilers, or just can't stomach strong opinion, then don't read it!

In short: what a terrible disappointment.

It's almost difficult to know where I should begin, but I would like to get one thing straight. I want everyone who reads this blog to know that, contrary to what the film implies and a number of people are saying, Hector Lavoe did NOT create salsa music. The line in the film where Johnny Pacheco (played by Nelson Vazquez) painfully delivers lines claiming that Lavoe & Colon mixed "mambo, merengue, jazz" into a "sauce like gumbo" and dubbed it salsa is outright false, and a gross mistake on the part of everyone involved in the making of the film. Though certainly instrumental in popularizing it, Lavoe was one of numerous poster children for the music at the height of its popularity, not its creator. The origins of salsa as a music are heavily disputed. Its earliest use dates as far back as the 1920s with the Cuban son of Ignacio Pineiro, and artists such as the Venezuelan Federico y Su Combo, the Puerto Ricans Charlie Palmieri, Pupi Legarreta, and Joe Cuba all released album utilizing the word salsa long before Colon and Lavoe began their career with 1967's El Malo. In truth, salsa is a Latin hybrid drawing from the musical traditions of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and a host of other Latin countries. Cuba, Panama, Colombia and many more all had thriving salsa scenes that rivaled that of Fania, but simply did not have a place in American consciousness to lay claim to salsa music. So, for us over here in the states, whether gringo or even Nuyorican, salsa may seem to have been born in this country, but it was not. To say that Hector Lavoe or even Willie Colon and the Fania label were the architects behind this music would be as erroneous as claiming that Miles Davis invented jazz, or that Led Zeppelin invented rock n' roll. It's simply not true. A useful distinction that I make is in referring to the Fania scene as Nuyorican salsa, rather than simply salsa. This acknowledges that, in its tenure in New York City, salsa took on a new sound with refined instrumentation and production values that made it distinct from other forms of salsa. But the only and original form of salsa it is not.

A few other inaccuracies plagued the movie as well. Some question whether or not Puchi (Hector's wife played by Jennifer Lopez) was as important in Hector's life as El Cantante claims it to be. Furthermore, not only was the reference to the origins of the hit song El Cantante unconvincing, but the story is, by many accounts, false. The movie portrays Ruben Blades taking the stage with an acoustic guitar, and giving Hector, who is in the audience, as a gift, a new song that he had written. Considering that Blades ranks as one of the best singers in all of Latin music, it's rather unfortunate that the actor playing him could barely carry a true note. Moreover, the actual story of the song was one of enormous tension. Blades originally wanted to record the song himself, and some accounts say that Colon convinced him to reluctantly give it to Lavoe. Though afterwards Blades acknowledged that Lavoe did a better job with the song than he ever could have, the real-life account is still one of dispute, rather than that of the film in which a wide-eyed, naive Blades dedicates a song to a man whom he claims a childhood hero (which, in some ways, does not make chronological sense).

Having seen director Leon Ichaso's previous biopic Pinero, and being sorely disappointed at the hectic and overwrought cinematography and schizophrenic pacing in that movie, I should have anticipated those same aesthetic aches in the Lavoe film, but did not. Unfortunately, they are all there. Ichaso's pointillist, hurried glimpses of virtually every angle in a room or scene is a tried and true case of using far too much to say far too little. The film runs the chronological gamut of over thirty years, but Ichaso saw fit to make it seem as though a contextually-undefined, ten minute snapshot of Hector Lavoe's life every five or so years could paint an accurate and satisfying picture of the artist's career. Riding the Lavoe timeline with Ichaso at the helm is akin to a nauseating roller coaster. The plot only surfaces in fits, jumps, and starts, with no real sense of pacing in an attempt to make Lavoe's out-of-control lifestyle appear vibrant. To that effect, the film only falls into cliches, haphazardly using blurred scenes of Lavoe with a needle in his arm to say something about Hector's character.

The portrayal of Hector Lavoe (as played by Marc Anthony) truly amounted to something as the film began, but had altogether vanished by its mid-point. Numerous accounts describe Hector as the most humble, good-natured man that one could ever meet, and Anthony surprisingly nailed that aspect during Lavoe's rise to fame. The initial romance between Puchi and Lavoe is charming, and Lavoe's lines witty without being overbearing. One of my favorite moments in the movie involves Lavoe on tour, after a show with a beer in hand, innocently following Willie Colon and his current female companion towards Colon's room. When Colon forcefully shuts the door behind for some privacy, thereby locking Lavoe out, Anthony produces the most perfect, awkward pause and unassuming saunter back to his room. Small details like this reeled me into Lavoe's character as the movie began, but as the sex-drugs-salsa kicks in, Anthony began portraying a completely different, aggressive character with no real impetus behind the change. Perhaps even more important, Ichaso places no substance behind Hector's depression and his battle with drugs. Throughout the movie, his faults are taken at face value with no apparent need for explanation. The result is a character who seems as unexplainable to audience members as he is to the actor impersonating him.

Hector's wife Puchi has been heralded by many as the role that Jennifer Lopez was born to play. In some ways, this is absolutely correct, as Lopez's interpretation crackles with raw energy. That energy, however, is ultimately without direction, as Lopez fails to differentiate Puchi as anything other than plot-line filler. Yes, Lopez has done a terrific job of displaying a very heated Nuyoricena, but the problem is that Puchi is not simply that. What makes Puchi Puchi, as opposed to a stereotype of an aggressive wife of a musical superstar, is completely lost in the fray.


The musical performances of Hector Lavoe, on the other hand, are vibrant, and I certainly have to commend Anthony for an excellent impression of Lavoe on stage. Anthony copies Lavoe's inflections while still retaining the signature timbre of his voice, and even nails many of Lavoe's live mannerisms such as cradling the bottom-most section of the microphone. The music was a welcome aside from the virtual strobe-lighting of the rest of the film.

In that vein, it seems that "the music was great" is about all that I can say after seeing El Cantante. I would have derived a more enjoyable experience from seeing Anthony impersonate Lavoe on stage for nearly two hours. I suppose that after this disappointment, at the very least I do have the Lavoe records to come back to. El Cantante plays much better as a soundtrack than as a film.

But, it's easy to be a critic, no? I highly recommend that you see the movie for yourself, and I encourage disagreement in the comments. I wanted to walk out of the theater raving about the movie because I had placed a lot of weight in seeing a person so obscure to those around me--yet vital to my family, my culture, and myself--receive some due recognition. I will admit, in closing, that a large part of my review may very well derive from the the disappointment felt after having placed such importance on this film for so long.

20 comments:

Dj Canalh said...

I like the "non-salsacentrist" point of view at the begining of your post.

Girts said...

Along with this, if I could find a good soul music blog, I'd be satisfied. Know of any?

-Girts

BellaLuna5 said...

I thnk everyone kinda misses the point of this film...first off this is a film that in less than 2 hours, has to tell a story of Hector Lavoe. Though yes it's true Hector Lavoe didn't create salsa, the film carefully quotes that he was ONE of the pioneers to bring salsa music to where it is today. Also my mother who lived, danced, and went to the clubs of Hector Lavoe...told me that before they pioneered salsa it was not called salsa. That type of music was called "Latin". Salsa was a knew term for my mother's generation and it was the beginning of Nyericans of baby boomers. If you ask a puerto rican baby boomer they will eventually tell you that although yes the genre was sitting in their front door the whole time, it was not as popular and it was not recognized as salsa to them. That's what makes people like Hector Lavoe and Willie Colon so different.I do agree with everything else you said about Puchi, my mother told me that when she would watch Hector you vaguely saw her, and many were surprise to realize that Hector Lavoe even had a stable girlfriend. I personally loved the film not only because it had good salsa music, but watching this film bring back memories to my mother and her generation, it was priceless. Not only was my mother and I proud, but I felt like i learned so much more about my heritage by hearing her remember those times. Also people complained about the film focusing on his drug addiction but sad to say that was the time was mostly about. My mother said that from the bathroom to the parking lot all she saw was drugs everywhere. From the supermarket watching a man stoned out of his mind stay awake, the seventies in New York was beautiful but filled with the drug obsession. That Hector Lavoe was caught into that, it only makes sense that the film shows that because they were a sad priority in his life. Aside that, Lavoe was very unique loving, and talented singer. i only wished he knew that and would see how big of an influence he is today.

john said...

i wasnt a big lavoe fan nor am i a j-lo admirer especially after she lost that butt but i thought the movie served its purpose it brought some much needed attention to a neglected american art form "salsa" which was the product of that melting pot we used to hear so much about once upon a time....that the movie was even made is amazing and man hollywood is hollywood remember westside story?

ani said...

still watching the movie.. i have a screener copy on dvd. what i've seen so far.... marc anthony is great...
j lo... not impressed with her acting. the music is great though.. and that era is fascinating...

great blog, btw.. really cool

Galloogallo said...

This is a dope blog. You definetly know your stuff; However Im kind of confused on your comments about Puchi. You talk about what makes Puchi Puchi & then don't elaborate. Can you explain. Thanks

Chapín said...

First - have I thanked you for the link yet? If not: muchas gracias :)

A very well-written review, I can find myself in most parts. Not enough character, too much Puchi, lack of consistency in the plot. I do sense a slight age difference between us, in the fact that I rather enjoyed the filming style of Leon Ichaso (product of the MTV generation, right).

Oh yeah, "Considering that Blades ranks as one of the best singers in all of Latin music, it's rather unfortunate that the actor playing him could barely carry a true note": that actor is Mexican salsero Victor Manuelle ;)

Keep up the good work!

Joaquin said...

Unfortunately, El Cantante turns out to be much more of an Anthony and Lopez project than a Lavoe one. Shot with seeming disregard for any of his actual artistic importance, the film fails to answer some of the simplest and most important questions about the musician's life, instead choosing to focus on the more conventional arc of a meteoric (and predictably self-destructive) rise to success rather than the memorable expression of one man's creative voice. Also, talented singer Victor Manuelle (Puerto Rican) portrayed Ruben Blades in this movie.

Jenny said...

I think the movie is to watch it from Puchi's point of view. This is Puchi's story of Hector Lavoe. The world sees Hector Lavoe differently than Puchi. She has this fantasy with Hector, therefore she tells it with all the good memories she had with Hector.
A lots of my friends after watching the movie did thought that Hector Lavoe was the creater of Salsa, which kind of made me mad. But if I didn't watch this movie I probably wouldn't appreciate the lyric of the songs sing by Hector as much as I would of now.

J.S. said...

As with most biopics, one shouldn't expect a very realistic depiction of artists, just the Hollywood interpretation of it. It's always important to keep in mind that this is not a documentary, but a rather fictionalized version of the story.

I did enjoyed the movie for the most part, and i think Marc Anthony did a great work with the music. Very accurate and a very respectful tribute to Lavoe. I was actually a bit surprised, as I must admit I'm far from being a fan of Marc (i just can't digest his 'salsa romántica' nor his pop material).

Overall as a movie, 'El Cantante' is just okay. Nothing truly outstanding there, but if you overlook the fact of its factual and historical accuracy, you'll find it to be rather entertaining, particularly if musician biopics interest you. The music really makes up for the flaws.

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pwrspinnr said...

I liked the move but not as a representation of salsa.

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Latino Music UK said...

A great review! You've made us want to pick up a Hector Lavoe Biography to read.

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My history go's way back to the Bugaloo Days. I was thinking you could help me promote my music?

Thank You
Bennito Padilla