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.