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With: Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, John Ortiz, Manny Perez, Vincent Laresca, Antone Pagan
Written by: Leon Ichaso, David Darmstaedter, Todd Antony Bello
Directed by: Leon Ichaso
MPAA Rating: R for drug use, pervasive language and some sexuality
Language: English, Spansih with English subtitles
Running Time: 106
Date: 09/12/2006

El Cantante (2007)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Clips and Salsa

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Leon Ichaso really rips into the first section of this biopic of Puerto Rican-born singer Hector Lavoe, who was at the forefront when salsa music caught on in the United States in the 1970s. He cuts to the rhythm of infectious drums, swaying rhythms and sweaty dancing. Like Ichaso's previous feature, the similar Piñero (2001), El Cantante (or "the singer") looks as if it had been dug up from a 1970s time capsule, full of grainy, ragged sections and using superimposed text and cracked photographs for emphasis; it may be the craziest stuff since Oliver Stone took on The Doors (1991). It's as if, by sheer force of will, the director is trying to burn through the by now overly familiar musical biopic format.

But while Piñero had a kind of narrow, self-absorbed focus, El Cantante eventually succumbs to the typically broad biopic canvas. It hits nothing but highlights; and misses the singer's soul. Lavoe's longtime wife, nicknamed 'Puchi' (Jennifer Lopez), begins by relaying her version of the story on camera, although this potentially focused point of view is quickly abandoned. After the shock flash-forward to a turning point late in Lavoe's career, we flash back to his humble origins, the arrival in the big city, the meeting of the soul mate, the first flushes of fame, the sinister introduction to drugs (this time a door shuts on us in slow motion), the departure of the less talented -- but sober -- bandmate, the breakdown, rehab, the bizarre, quasi-religious rituals that temporarily renew his spirit, jealousy, and finally, HIV.

Lopez's real-life husband Marc Anthony plays Lavoe, and it's a double-edged performance. Anthony has a wonderful singing voice, warm, rich and dramatic, but he's a rather more limited thespian and not skilled enough to project much past Lavoe's trademark dark glasses, worn throughout most of the film. It's when the characters shut up and sing that El Cantante pulses to life, thundering and purring with the joy and sorrow of every beautifully cornball song. The film may not capture the real Lavoe, but it at least understands the passion of a fan.

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