Saturday, March 07, 2015

El Cantante

Originally Written and Posted at on 11/7/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Directed by Leon Ichaso and written by Ichaso, David Darmstaeder, and Todd Anthony Bello, El Cantante is the story about legendary salsa singer Hector Lavoe who was considered one of the forefathers of the salsa music scene as the film chronicles his rise in the 1960s and 1970s to his fall in the 1980s and his death in 1993. The film is a dramatization about Lavoe's life as well as his turbulent relationship with his wife Puchi who is played by Jennifer Lopez with Latin pop singer Marc Anthony as Lavoe. Also starring Federico Castelluccio, John Ortiz, and Glenda Dopazo. El Cantante for all of its energy is a messy and very unoriginal film from Leon Ichaso.

It's 2002 as Puchi is walking for an interview to tell the life of her late husband Hector Lavoe. Born Hector Juan Perez Martinez in Puerto Rico, Hector had lost his mother early in his life and his brother a few years before in the 1960s as he set to leave his beloved home for New York City. Arriving into the city, he meets Eddie (Manny Perez) who both sneak in to get into a club where he caught a glimpse of Puchi while ended up singing for a bit at the club. A few months later, he becomes the singer for the club band as he grabs the attention of Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and a label head named Jerry Masucci (Federico Castelluccio). Masucci hopes to form a label that would be the Latin equivalent to Motown while bringing a new sound to the people. With Willie Colon's talents for writing and being a bandleader, Hector changes his last name to Lavoe and by 1965, a revolution began.

Despite his emerging success, Hector continues to battle his own insecurities as he eventually falls for Puchi despite her street-wise personality that often causes conflict with his sister (Glenda Dopazo). Despite their tumultuous relationship, they would eventually marry in the late 60s and gained a son named Tito. For all of the success that Hector gains both personally and professionally, Hector's demons lead him to an addiction to heroin that was introduced to him by both Eddie and Willie. By the 70s, Hector continues to be successful with Willie Colon as salsa starts to break through with the duo and their band the Fania All Stars. Their success would also lead them to sell out venues including Madison Square Garden in NYC.

It was also in this time that Hector's addiction starts to take its toll as his marriage to Puchi becomes troublesome while her presence in the studios and shows would often be more troubling. Finally in 1973, Willie Colon decides to quit touring as he found Hector's lateness to gigs to be a hassle. With Hector going solo in the late 70s, he continues to have success but his addition would also give him trouble as eventually, Puchi starts to have affairs. Finally, he couldn't take his addiction where in 1979, Puchi took him to a spiritual doctor hoping to cleanse him where for a while. He seemed fine as he continues to tour and be with his family including son Tito (Christopher Becerra at 14 & Bernard Hernandez at 17/18) but his relationship with Puchi remains troubled. Finally, a relapse ensued during the mid and late 80s as it would take tragedy, estrangement, and the AIDS virus to wake him up. Yet, demons managed to lurk on as Hector tries to find some amount of redemption.

A film version of the life of a musician has a formula that is often followed. The artist comes from a humble or poor background, moves to the big city, struggles a bit, becomes big, finds love, and then everything falls apart through drugs, declining sales, and such. This is the formula the film and director Leon Ichaso seems to rely on. Not that it's a bad formula but the problem is that there's so much in the story from the script that really doesn't emphasize on. While it's understandable that Lavoe had issues with depression and drug abuse due to family deaths early on and some insecurities yet the screenwriters didn't go deep enough into that. At the same time, the story about Lavoe's relationship with Puchi really takes it toll where they love each other, they hate each other, they love each other, and so on. It becomes a pattern that doesn't go anywhere. There's not even a moment when they're just being normal, not fighting, or doing any kind of bad things. It's often dramatized to the point that the script offers nothing for the audience to not only be engaged by them but reasons to sympathize with them as they're always unlikeable from start to finish.

Then there's the direction that is really uneven. Leon Ichaso has some excellent sequence that involves the performances of Hector Lavoe and his personality where publicly, he's funny, he charismatic, he's a womanizer of sorts, and all of these things. That part should've been kept yet when it delves into reality. It doesn't work. Now, in the hands of a more experienced director, the sequences with drugs wouldn't become a cliche as it would handle with some subtlety. Unfortunately, Ichaso emphasizes on style rather than substance where it takes a scene from Taylor Hackford's 2004 bio-pic Ray about Ray Charles in that similar motif of grainy photography and fast-cuts to show the world of addiction. It becomes total cliche and after a few of those scenes, it's very heavy-handed to the point that the audience becomes already aware of what is going on.

Another sequence that really fails and definitely takes a lot away from the film is the black-and-white interview sequence with Puchi. While the film is told from her perspective, it's a narrative device that doesn't work at all. It seems like she's trying to tell his story and her importance to his life. Yet, she starts rambling on and on about how great and how flawed he is. Why she is important to him. It doesn't go anywhere and it's an entire sequence that should've been cut from the entire film. Ichaso's emphasis on style to tell the story of Lavoe really fails. Even through the time sequences where it moves from 1960 through 1980 and at times, the audience doesn't know what year it is or when all of this is happening. That lack of awareness makes that part of the film totally inconsistent and confusing to the audience. The result is a messy, uneven film that dropped the ball during the second act.

The cinematography of Claudio Chea is very stylized with bits of grainy film footage mixed in with heavy colors that are a bit fuzzy. Yet, it doesn't work since the emphasis on style gets overdone while shots of Puerto Rico are at times, too tinted for the look while in NYC, everything looks a bit dark. Ichaso or Chea were trying to make the film look gritty but it just ends up bringing some uninspired work. The editing of David Tedeschi and Raul Marchand suffers through Ichaso's direction and some sequences would have very fast cuts that really become dizzying while there's no sense of life or emotion through those cuts. It's awful throughout despite the rhythm of the live performances of Lavoe. Production designer Sharon Lomofsky does a nice job with the film's look that is Puerto Rican in some of the film's first half but by the time it reaches the second act where Lavoe is rich, it becomes uninspiring while it's unclear if all of couches, furniture, and all of that are from the 80s or now.

Costume designer Sandra Hernandez does some nice work with the film's costumes that play well to a certain period though at times, it ends up looking silly to see J-Lo in one of her clothes while her hairstyle would emphasize what period she's in as an attempt to make each hairdo a sign of her aging. It doesn't work since she looks the same throughout. The music by Andres Levin with contribution by Willie Colon does play very well to the Latin rhythms with music from the 70s and 80s playing at times to show what period they’re in. The soundtrack that features many of Colon's work with Lavoe as well as Lavoe's solo work is a definite highlight. With Marc Anthony performing those songs, it works to show the kind of humor and tragedy of what Lavoe is singing as it's the only part of the film that hits the mark right in its head in terms of authenticity.

The casting is interesting with a lot of actors playing parts yet there's so many, it's hard to find a standout. Christopher Becerra and Bernard Hernandez are good as the different versions of Tito, the son who is trying to win his father's love despite the interference of his mother. Manny Perez is good as Lavoe's friend Eddie with Glenda Dopazo as Lavoe's sister who doesn't like Puchi. John Ortiz is pretty good as Willie Colon, the man who would be Hector's wingman as he would try to help him get straight and such. Federico Castelluccio is great as label boss Jerry Masucci who also tries to help Hector while enabling his success.  Marc Anthony delivers a fantastic performance as Hector Lavoe with his charm and charisma when he's performing. Anthony manages to sell Lavoe's insecurity when he's off the stage but when it comes to the drug scenes, it doesn't totally work. Yet, it's really more of the direction of Ichaso rather than Anthony's performance where it's at fault. Anthony deserves more credit for his performance where he can be very dramatic without overacting while being funny as well. Even in a scene where he's dressed up as Santa Claus or in Charlie Chaplin make-up, there's a real actor in there who proves to be very watchable. 

Finally, there's Jennifer Lopez in what has to be one of the most irritating performances ever. Her presence in the film is overwhelming as if she's trying to out-act everyone in the film. While there's a scene that gives her an excuse to shake her booty (that is overrated), several scenes cursing, and having to be in control. It's as if she's trying to be the star of the film when really, her character has to be a supporting role rather than the top lead. The documentary scenes end up being very vain as if she is trying to be the most important character of the film. Her portrayal of Puchi is very poor as if she's either playing a supportive wife or his enabler. Her scenes with Anthony don't really work as her acting is overdone and she tries to dominate any scene he's in and they really don't have chemistry as actors. If there's a real negative thing about this film, it's J-Lo.

Despite its lively soundtrack and some fantastic moments involving the music, El Cantante is a horrible film from Leon Ichaso. Filled with too many cliches, an uneven and tired narrative, formulaic storylines, and extremely unlikable characters. It's a film that is really more an insult rather than a tribute to the life and career of Hector Lavoe who deserves better. In the end, El Cantante is a terrible and overblown film from Leon Ichaso.

© thevoid99 2015


Dell said...

Oh well. Looks like I'm the only one that enjoyed this one. I didn't think it was great, but better than most give it credit for.

thevoid99 said...

I just had a lot of issues with the film as it wanted to be a lot of things. Having J-Lo as the narrator is not a good idea.

My parents saw the film when I rented it as they're fans of salsa music and they found the whole film to be ridiculous to the point that they actually laughed at some of the scenes. If you're trying to make a very serious film and you end up bringing unintentional laughter. Then you know the film isn't working.