Research for an article about salsa in the movies brought me to, among other titles, El Cantante, featuring both Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Ever seen this one?
First off, it didn’t get great reviews — just 5.4 out of ten stars on IMDB, and a whopping one star on Rotten Tomatoes. But if you have the stomach for some flair and drama, don’t let that stop you. The flick, based on the life of Puerto-Rican-born Salsa singer Hector Lavoe, was actually pretty entertaining. Not that the film is light-hearted. It’s romantic, sad, at times exciting, and actually, I found it to be pretty successful in its attempt to capture the drama of salsa — especially the drama that I like to imagine being embodied by the NYC salsa scene during the 1980s.
Go in expecting entertainment, and you shall be entertained. But go in expecting an accurate and/or fair representation of Lavoe’s life, and, well, you may be disappointed.
The criticisms are largely that the film was indecisive about which genre pattern to follow, taking on traits of a traditional, made-for-TV biopic, as well as those of a sappy romantic drama. But also, some critics mention that the film isn’t successful in first building up Hector’s strength of character before showing how he messes up his life again and again as a drug-addicted and self-tortured performer.
Let me back up. Better start with a synopsis.
In real life, Hector Lavoe was a truly talented singer known as “el Cantante de los Cantantes” (“the Singer of Singers”). When he was 16, he moved to NYC, where he began performing with local Latin musicians. Eventually, he was discovered by the entertainment biz (you know, the men in suits who convinced him to change his name from “Perez” to “Lavoe”), joining Willie Colón’s band as the singer. Together, they recorded a bunch of hits and rose to NYC and eventual international fame.
The film posits that in the interim, like so many other musicians, Lavoe turned to drugs in order to dull the inner pain of not being able to live up to his father’s unrealistic expectations. Indeed, it’s well-documented that Lavoe experienced psychiatric problems, especially around the year of 1976, when his father, son, and mother-in-law all passed away in the same year. That year, he was also diagnosed with HIV, culminating in a suicide attempt, which he survived. He went on to record another album before eventually passing away from HIV.
Also, there was Puchi.
Puchi, played by J-Lo, was Lavoe’s wife. And here’s where the the plotline of El Cantante really focuses in — and in my opinion, where it really got interesting. Midway through the film, I started to get a little bit tired of scenes with Puchi smiling, winking or dancing (OK, we get it, the girl loved to get dressed up and party), but eventually, it became clear that filmmaker Leon Ichaso was using these scenes to establish a rising tension. Their relationship, according to the film, was a co-dependent one, where Puchi sought attention and even participated in Lavoe’s drug use until it eventually overcame him — and she left him. Via a theatrical interview segment functioning as the driving narrative mechanism, Puchi looks back on their relationship as one of “real love.” But the viewer can clearly see how this love was also tinged by a not-unselfish love of excitement and dreams of success.
It’s easy to see how the film hyper-focused on the drug addiction and emotional problems, while ignoring the integrity of Hector Lavoe as a real person. In a 2007 review for the Indypendent, Bennett Baumer points out that the film also ignores some of the details of the pair’s relationship, neglecting to mention that Lavoe proposed to another woman before proposing to Puchi (who was also carrying Lavoe’s child), and also the five-year period after Lavoe’s suicide attempt and before his death where he spent most of his time — according to Baumer — shooting up and playing shows in sleazy clubs. Puchi was not with him during this time. But without knowing much about Lavoe before watching the film, I found myself surprised by my appreciation for Lopez’s performance — for which she was commended — and also the complexity of the relationship that did come across.
Real love, real salsa.
It’s unfair to look back on Puchi historically as Lavoe’s enabler because it’s probably impossible to understand the real fiber of their relationship (we weren’t there). However, true love can be used as an excuse for many passionate and misguided actions, and at times, it’s especially difficult to separate what seems like honest-to-goodness romantic magnetism from selfish desire. For what it’s worth, the above depiction comes through.
Why did this film work for me? Again, because I didn’t have high expectations to begin with. I selected it thinking hopefully about the salsa scenes, dancing, and music the film is known for — and I wasn’t disappointed. The film made me want to dance, and maybe because of the emotional, transporting music of Hector Lavoe, I wasn’t so much thinking about a plot critique as I was about the costumes and ambiance.
If you’re in it for a good salsa flick, I’d recommend checking it out!