The rhythm is gonna get you with El Cantante, if the movie's stagnant biographical drama doesn't bore you first. Congas and cowbells are the chief difference between salsa music pioneer Hector Lavoe and every other (heroin) shooting star immortalized on film.
Lavoe's story echoes the recent biopics of Ray Charles and Johnny Cash: poor child grows up to become a singing sensation and can't handle fame's temptations. Charles and Cash rehabbed and enjoyed long lives, though, while Lavoe died of AIDS in 1993 - likely from sharing tainted hypodermic needles.
Director/co-writer Leon Ichaso skips the details of Lavoe's death, ending with his failed suicide attempt - a high-rise swan dive - a few years prior. El Cantante is so persistently downbeat that Ichaso's premature ending is appreciated. It is also understandable since Lavoe seldom performed after that attempt and music is the movie's sole strength.
Marc Anthony has the singing credentials to tackle such an iconic role; his career owes everything to Lavoe and his peers who blended Latin jazz with rhythm and blues and rock and roll to create salsa.
El Cantante percolates when Anthony performs such Lavoe signatures as Mi Gente, Todo Tiene Su Final and Che Che Cole. Songs are often translated with eye-catching subtitles to connect the man's life and music. Even the camera seems to dance and sway to those infectious beats.
Between numbers, Anthony plays Lavoe by the movie book of celebrity vices, nodding off when he isn't ranting or begging forgiveness from his enabling wife, Puchi (Anthony's real-life spouse, Jennifer Lopez). Any time she walks into an apartment or hotel room calling Hector's name, she'll catch him with a needle in his arm or a puta in his bed.
Lopez's participation creates another hitch in Ichaso's structure. As co-producer and bigger star than her husband, Lopez gets nearly equal screen time. That leads to a clumsy flashback framework with aged Puchi telling her side of the story in monochromatic cinema non-verite. Lopez isn't a convincing senior citizen and the interruptions knock a movie about rhythm off its own.
The desire to showcase Lopez carries over to the 1960s and 1970s sequences although Puchi is mainly a bystander to self-destruction. There is chemistry between the two actors but modesty and the script's familiar path prevent any genuine sparks from flying, even when kinky sex is involved.
Also missing is any examination of Lavoe's creative process, which is where we often discover more about artistic personalities. Inventing salsa is depicted as merely being introduced to trombonist Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and a recording executive telling them how big they'll be as a team.
Ichaso doesn't detail Lavoe's creative journey as vividly as his tragic destination.
El Cantante is an undoubtedly sincere effort to celebrate Lavoe's unique musical contributions. Too bad Ichaso does it in such overly familiar fashion.
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or email@example.com. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.
Director: Leon Ichaso
Cast: Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, John Ortiz, Manny Perez, Federico Castelluccio
Screenplay: Leon Ichaso, David Darmstaedter, Todd Anthony Bello
Rating: R; pervasive drug abuse, strong profanity, brief sexual content
Running time: 116 min.