J-Lo Glows

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Running Time 106 minutes
Directed By Leon Ichaso
Written By Leon Ichaso, David Darmstaedter, and Todd Antony Bello
Starring Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, John Ortiz

Jennifer Lopez must have learned something from working with people like Ralph Fiennes and Jane Fonda. In El Cantante, she surpasses a one-dimensional script and creates a three-dimensional character out of cardboard. It looks like she’s been taking acting lessons. The movie is a brassy, unexceptional chronicle of the rise and fall of the tragic, self-destructive 60’s salsa king Hector Lavoe, and an obvious labor of love for J-Lo’s husband, Marc Anthony—who sings and swings his way through the leading role—and the torrid tamale herself, who co-produced and plays Hector’s tempestuous wife, Puchi. Whatever else is missing from El Cantante, you can’t say it lacks passion.

Hector was a musician, singer and drug addict who arrived in New York from his native Puerto Rico in 1963, electrified the music scene with the beat of a conga drum, and died of AIDS in 1993, at 46. This is his story, based on a filmed interview with Puchi after the Latin icon’s death that forms the structure. Although she stuck by “el cantante” (the singer) for 20 years, theirs was never a conventional marriage. After two years and one baby, she had to drag him out of an orgy in her wedding dress to get him to the ceremony. And the beat goes on, as he overdoses on heroin and passes out onstage from alcohol and cocaine; she tries to shield their overindulged son from the spotlight; and their screaming matches become famous from Manhattan to San Juan. For 106 minutes, you trace the pull of stardom from Lavoe’s humble Puerto Rican roots to the U.S., where his throbbing musical style hits pay dirt with the help of the ambitious, tough-talking beauty who becomes both his adviser and partner, in and out of bed. That bed was often shared by whores of both sexes, but Puchi learned how to fight, forgive and hold on. You see Hector in action onstage with his celebrated collaborator, trombonist Willie Colón (John Ortiz, who did a dazzling job of re-creating the music), and in business forming their moneymaking Fania Records label. The music is the real heart of the film; it is thrilling to rock along with the great hits by Rubén Blades, Joe Cuba, Marvin Gaye, Johnny Pacheco and other salsa legends, and Marc Anthony performs them brilliantly.

Unfortunately, when the music stops, the movie grinds to a halt along with it. As Hector and Puchi move from the glory days of the 70’s to the bleak realities of the 80’s, their relationship flames out and Mr. Anthony’s performance energy in the sold-out concerts and pulsating recording sessions is not always matched by his lack of charisma in the scenes of wrenching domestic drama. Films about the personal tragedies of public figures are nothing new and the career downfalls of beloved musicians (angst, disease and death) have been more poetically chronicled in better films, from Bird to the recent Édith Piaf biopic, La Vie en Rose. Still, director Leon Ichaso scores with an emotional final tribute that incorporates footage of the real Hector Lavoe’s emotional funeral in 1993, when thousands of people jammed the streets of New York to pay their respects.

The English translations of Spanish lyrics slide up, down and sideways across every corner of the screen, like the old Accutron sign over Times Square. The parade of classic songs enrich the soundtrack with all the lustiness, joy and spirit salsa music conveys. And J-Lo really delivers the goods. I haven’t always been a fan, but she makes this movie a must-see. Shaking her booty in backless gowns with balls of brass, a hornet’s nest of hair by Westinghouse, oversize sunglasses and cherry red lipstick on fire, she is shockingly good. The music is unforgettable, but she brings a pulsating rhythm to El Cantante that is uniquely her own.