Things I Learned Watching El Cantante

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Even if you were broke, their love don't cost a thing

Every music biopic depends at least a little bit on a built-in familiarity and sympathy. We're already supposed to know a couple of things about Ray Charles or Johnny Cash or Mozart, and that's what's supposed to get us into the theater in the first place. And then our appreciation for these guys is supposed to deepen once we get some sense of their struggles and their contexts. Well, El Cantante isn't going to teach anyone about Hector Lavoe, and it isn't going to deepen anyone's appreciation either; I learned more about the man from spending ten minutes with his Wikipedia entry than I did by spending two hours with El Cantante this morning. The movie doesn't build on an already-extant affection for the man; it depends upon it entirely. The Lavoe of the movie is a total cold fish, an emotionless bumbler who barely even tries to keep his dangerous appetites in check and who seems singularly undevoted to craft or artistry. Maybe that's because Marc Anthony, who plays Lavoe, isn't an actor; he's a singer, and he only seems alive in this character when he's onstage singing. The rest of the time, he just sits there bemused while stuff happens to him. The music is good enough that the movie never becomes a total waste, but it definitely wasn't worth my eleven dollars, and it probably won't be worth a spot in your Netflix cue when the DVD comes out in a couple of months either. Here are some things I learned watching El Cantante.

• Either this movie is going to be really popular or it's just some New York shit. Either way, the theater was pretty full at 11 a.m. on a weekday, which is not something I've ever seen before.

• When Jennifer Lopez wants to look older, she's entirely content just to frizz her hair up a bit and scrunch up her forehead. She doesn't actually look any older (at all), but she still looks like Jennifer Lopez. Lopez plays Lavoe's wife, and all the old-J.Lo scenes come from an interview that she did in 2002. Every time the movie starts to rack up anything resembling momentum, we get more footage of old J.Lo yammering away. For some reason that I cannot even begin to parse, all the old-J.Lo scenes are in black and white.

• Lopez's performance mainly consists of squeaking and cussing. For some reason, she gets way more screen-time than Lavoe himself even though she's pretty secondary to the story, and by the end of it she reaches Fran Drescher levels of annoying. I'm having trouble remembering the last movie in which Lopez was any good. The Cell? Has any other actress been less able to justify megastardom? The movie can't seem to decide whether her character is the Reese Witherspoon/June Carter Cash nurse/redeemer archetype or just another cokehead fuckup, so she seesaws wildly between both extremes. But she dances a lot, so that's something.

• Human League songs will always make great soundtracks to Times Square cocaine montages.

• Nobody should ever give director Leon Ichaso any kind of budget to play with ever again, simply because the guy has absolutely zero storytelling ability. He stages virtually every important event in Lavoe's life in a weird cinematic shorthand. One minute, Lavoe's in Puerto Rico, and his father is telling him not to move to New York. Next minute, he's sneaking into a nightclub in New York. Then he's singing for a band in another nightclub, and the guy who runs Fania Records is introducing him to Willie Colon and telling the two of them that they should invent a new style of music called salsa. We get barely any scenes about the craft and artistry involved in making music, but I guess Ichaso needed to cut all the really interesting stuff short so he could have more time for the endless repetitive arguments between Anthony and Lopez. Also: Ichaso loves his wacky camera-tricks. When Lavoe is onstage singing, giant subtitles appear next to him. When Lavoe breaks down, the image freezes on his face and then switches to negative. It's like a Simpsons parody of melodramatic storytelling.

• Lavoe apparently didn't go through a gradual slide into heroin addiction. He just saw Colon doing it one day, and then he was immediately addicted and missing shows all the time. That's pretty efficient, I guess.

• John Ortiz, who plays Colon, is really good, even if his main function in the movie is to dispense sage advice to Lavoe. I'd probably rather watch a movie about Colon, if only because he doesn't seem like such a fuckup. Biopic directors keep forgetting that fuckups are not inherently interesting.

• Lavoe's teenage son was apparently shot and killed. We just hear about it, though; we don't see it. The son finds Lavoe's gun, and then the movie cuts to his funeral. The shooting might've made for a jarring and powerful scene, but it also would've required the two leads to be offscreen for a couple of minutes, and I guess they weren't having that.

• For all the bullshit, the movie isn't a total waste because even Ichaso can't fuck up the performance scenes too badly. The music is great, Anthony can actually sing, and the drums make for a lot of really good quick-cut opportunities. I liked the clothes a lot, too.

• Judging by the quick glimpse of old Lavoe footage we see at the end of the movie, Anthony didn't actually look anything like the guy.

• The movie actually ends when Lavoe attempts suicide, five years before he dies of AIDS. Old-J.Lo dismissively mutters that he wasn't really living during those final years anyway. Well, OK then.

Voice review: Robert Wilonsky on El Cantante


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