Jennifer Lopez going the indie route in a bid for reclaimed credibility, and while that’s a good tack in theory, the actual films that she’s chosen don’t seem to be able to necessarily pass muster. I don’t have time to pen a full-bodied, more intellectually discerning review, but the first out of the gate, El Cantante — the dramatic biography of Puerto Rican salsa
pioneer Hector Lavoe, and Lopez’s producing debut — doesn’t deliver the goods.
Directed by Leon Ichaso, the film charts, in flashback fashion, the passionate relationship between Puerto Rican-born Lavoe (Marc Anthony) and lively club-goer Puchi (Lopez), as well as the singer’s rocket ride to international
fame with trombonist bandleader Willie Colon (John Ortiz). The subsequent downward spiral tale is a very familiar one (drugs, silly) but Lavoe is a taciturn figure (“I don’t like talking about what hurts me, that’s just the way that I am,” he says), and the movie never really finds a way to trump that and put a fresh spin on things, narratively speaking.
Ichaso deploys a great (read: large) bag of stylistic directorial tricks (handheld close-ups, textual overlays, plenty of camera pushes and pulls) in an effort to goose you with the energy of the movie’s many music pieces. These bits give the film a thin sheen of wordless joy and pain, but the problem is that El
Cantante says little to nothing about how Lavoe really breaks into the scene, or why the salsa movement catches on, other than one soft-sell monologue about shared minority rhythms and agendas being mashed together for mutual benefit. Other times, Ichaso goes to clichéd slow-motion, to let us know that an “Important Decision” has just been made.
Then there are the framing, 2002-set interview segments with dubious aging make-up (the rest of the movie takes place from the mid-1960s through the ’80s), and just the entire fact that Lopez is playing a character named Puchi, which had me silently snickering and thinking of The Simpsons. Herself a habitual substance abuser, Puchi is basically an enabler and unreliable narrator — a fact which the film concedes and embraces, while also pointing out that she spent more time with Lavoe than anyone else. Again, though, the problem is that we don’t have a grasp of what drives and motivates these characters, individually or together, because the window into their shared life is so small. I suppose El Cantante works as an energy drink-boost for those already neck-deep in the salsa scene, and as a fleeting vehicle for some J-Lo ass-shaking and writhing about (they make sure to work in that scene), but there’s little here to pull in and hold viewers unfamiliar with these characters, and it’s a recognizable story with little, if any, supplementary insight. (Picturehouse, R, 116 minutes)