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The music's good; the tale needs salsa

August 03, 2007|Michael Phillips | Chicago Tribune

Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez are all dressed up and ready to rumble, musically speaking, in "El Cantante." But this musical biography of salsa sensation Héctor Lavoe (1946-1993), "The Voice," turns out to be nothing special. Well, the music is. The storytelling is not.

What is it about the biopic genre that gravitates toward the same sea of clichés, no matter what the sound or era? Films as dissimilar as "Ray," "La Vie en Rose" and this one make for lovely soundtracks. But you'd want them mostly as a reward for having dutifully done your time at the multiplex and receiving the standard catalog of setbacks, chemical or otherwise, in place of a living, breathing dramatic treatment of a complicated life.

Lavoe, who died of AIDS-related complications after a ravagingly indulgent life, shared a lot of needles and did a lot of blow and won a lot of hearts in his career. "He always knew it was going to happen for him," Lopez, in sort-of-older-lady makeup, tells a "Behind the Music"-type interviewer in "El Cantante." This is the framing device: Lopez, as widow Puchi Lavoe, diving into her memories.

Director and co-writer Leon Ichaso pingpongs between flashbacks to early 1960s Puerto Rico and Lavoe's meteoric party groove in Manhattan and elsewhere. The mid-'80s, Lopez says in voice-over, were the end of the good times.

The bad times came like rain for Lavoe: Career setbacks paled next to the drugs, the affairs, the accidental shooting death of son Tito, and constant tension of being two people in one worn-out body, a Puerto Rican and a New Yorker, a crossover artist whose attractively insolent way with a confessional ballad was never as much fun as the up-tempo numbers. The performance footage in "El Cantante" makes a mistake in shooting every musical sequence in exactly the same style.

What juice there is comes from its stars. It's fun to see Lopez loosen up and sling it a little; her acting has real energy and brass here, and it seems clear Anthony is a more stimulating co-star for her than, say, Ben Affleck. Anthony certainly has the pipes for Lavoe, and he pours his heart and lungs into his own numbers. But he's a mild screen presence, and the dramatic scenes he's given are just padding. The VH1 documentary conceit at work here becomes all too apt before long; like so many episodes of that show, "El Cantante" delivers only the surface of the music, leaving the "behind" part way, way behind.

"El Cantante." MPAA rating: R for drug use, pervasive language and some sexuality. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes. In general release.

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