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Dangerous grooves

Marc Anthony taps his own doubts to become tragic salsa star Hector Lavoe.

July 29, 2007|Agustin Gurza | Times Staff Writer

MARC ANTHONY had plenty of warning about the dangers of starring opposite his wife, Jennifer Lopez, in the story of a troubled celebrity couple from salsa's golden era. Fellow actors cautioned him that the marital conflicts in the script were bound to creep into his own relationship as some sort of evil projection on his marriage.

"Everybody said the same thing: 'Oh, working with your wife is going to be challenging,' " he recalls. " 'It's a rough script, man, and you're going to have to go to these [tormented] places.' "

Marc Anthony wasn't yet married to Lopez when he agreed to star as the late Hector Lavoe, the beloved but bedeviled salsa singer in "El Cantante" (The Singer), a Picturehouse release that opens Friday. His future wife would not just be his costar as the sharp-tongued Puchi, Lavoe's codependent spouse -- Lopez would also be his boss, since she was producing the movie as the maiden project of her company, Nuyorican Productions. The warnings gave him second thoughts about the deal. "Man, I thought I had signed a death sentence," he recalled.

But the singer plunged into the role with passion, bearing an uncanny resemblance on screen to the wiry Puerto Rican icon he calls his idol. "El Cantante" shows Lavoe's rise to fame as part of New York's salsa boom of the '60s and '70s and his almost simultaneous self-destruction through drug abuse and paralyzing self-doubt. Lavoe's talent and bravado made him an instant folk hero for the era's socially conscious Latin American youth. Yet his human failings and miserable luck made him a tragic figure who lost his mother as a boy, met with heartless rejection from his father as an adult, became hooked on heroin, buried a teenage son killed in a gun accident, contracted AIDS, tried to commit suicide and met an early death at age 46.

This story is told in flashbacks by a world-worn but still feisty Puchi, who is being interviewed after Lavoe's death. Played with convincing New York attitude by Lopez, Puchi recounts her husband's infidelities, his reputation for showing up late (if at all) to concerts, her heroic efforts to rescue him from scary shooting galleries and her blind enabling by sharing his drug habits.

A rough script indeed. How could Marc Anthony and Lopez inhabit such dark characters during shooting in New York and not take some of that turmoil back to their pastoral Long Island estate at night?

"The exact opposite is true," Marc Anthony counters, his voice rising. "On the drive home after a fight scene, we'd say, 'Oh, my God, that was crazy. Babe, we have nothing to worry about.' It shed light on how bad it could be, I guess, and we just felt so normal. We were like, 'Wow, thank God that's not our life,' and we ended up just celebrating ours."

"El Cantante" is the first movie to feature Marc Anthony and Lopez, both 38, as costars. It took them almost six years to make it, struggling against Hollywood's historic distortion of Latino themes and the lingering ghost of "Gigli," the 2003 box-office bomb that featured Lopez with her previous cohabiting costar, Ben Affleck.

Supporters are convinced that the actress redeems herself with her dramatic turn as Nilda "Puchi" Roman, in a script by director Leon Ichaso, Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter. Lavoe's widow had expressed a desire to be played by Lopez in the film, but she died in 2002 without meeting the actress.

Although Lopez has enjoyed marquee billing in several films, this is the first leading role for her husband, one of the top-selling Latin singers of all time. The starring role signals his intention to move more into acting, at a time when the music industry is in a slump and salsa is a pale shadow of what it was in his '90s heyday.

His advantage is that he's married to his acting coach. (The couple will sing on tour this fall.) In preparing to play Lavoe, he relied on his wife's experience in her first major movie role in "Selena," Gregory Nava's 1997 biopic of the slain Tejano singing star.

"Jennifer helped me a lot with that," says Marc Anthony, who had performed with the real Selena. "She studied [the character] to nauseum. I mean, clips, interviews, songs, nuances, everything. And then, she said, 'Forget about it. Let it seep into your performance; don't make it your performance.' I thought that was a very interesting paradigm."

"El Cantante" captures the intoxicating spirit of the salsa explosion, which was catching fire around the time Marc Anthony and Lopez were born in New York. As Nuyoricans, they share the cultural roots of Lavoe, born Hector Juan Perez, who was still a teenager in the early '60s when he moved to the mainland against his father's wishes. He brought with him a pride in Puerto Rico's jibaro, or country, music and a quick-witted command of Spanish, which would become a trademark of his vocal improvisations.

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