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El Cantante **1/2

The first time we see Hector Lavoe in “El Cantante” he’s in a heroin-induced stupor and can barely move. The year is 1985, and according to his wife Puchi it’s the best time of their lives. If this is the good, we don’t want to see the bad.

But see it we do, and director/co-writer Leon Ichaso’s “El Cantante” (“the singer” in Spanish) embraces every aspect of Lavoe’s promiscuous, drug-addicted life and successful singing career in the same woe-is-me manner that all musical biopics seem to embrace. Granted, the origins of the Salsa movement Lavoe help create in the 1970s are new to the big screen, but after “Ray” and “Walk the Line” Lavoe arrives as yet another brilliantly talented musician whose personal life was an absolute mess.

In flashbacks Puchi (Jennifer Lopez) recalls how they met, fell in love, how Lavoe (Mark Anthony) became famous, addicted to drugs, etc. The intention is for the viewer to feel informed about Lavoe’s life, but the result is a judgmental hindsight perspective that doesn’t allow his career and personal troubles to stand on their own and make a real impact. In effect, having someone else comment on his hardships undermines the emotional force of his self-destructive decisions. 

Rumor has it Lopez has been trying to get Lavoe’s story made for years, which explains both the casting of her real-life husband (Anthony) and the fact that her role is much larger than it should be. This is the story of Hector Lavoe, a Puerto Rican immigrant for whom the American dream came true, not Puchi. Although Lopez’s performance is solid, her excessive screen time suggests that Puchi’s life was just as interesting as Lavoe’s. It wasn’t, and it’s not even close.

As Lavoe, Mark Anthony gives a standout performance for what thus far has been a nominal acting career. Yes, the singer-turned-actor is playing a singer, but he truly does possess both the screen presence and emotional range to play Lavoe effectively. He’s appropriately funny, solemn, bossy and demonstrative as needed, and he hits all the emotional highs and lows with convincing candor. He of course sings well: “El Cantante,” “Que Lio” and “Quitate” are among the highlights, but don’t expect an Oscar nomination even though the movie is as good as it is almost exclusively because of his performance.

Many of the film’s problems could have been solved by a better script and smarter directing. Lavoe’s disapproving Puerto Rican father and distance from his own son undoubtedly has a lot to do with why he’s such a tortured soul, but the connection between that and his inability to communicate with anyone is never convincingly made. If the suppression of his emotions is why he overindulges in drugs, drinking and women, then the reasons for the personal trauma are very important and need to be better explored.

Although a great performance can sometimes make a movie great (Charlize Theron in “Monster”), it cannot always save a flawed movie (Denzel Washington in “The Hurricane”). In “El Cantante” Anthony is stricken with the latter, and almost does enough on his own to make up for the innumerable flaws around him. Almost.