El Cantante, a biopic screenplay co-written and directed by Leon Ichaso, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2006. Filmed in Puerto Rico and New York, it is the life story of Hector Lavoe, born and raised in Ponce, Puerto Rico, as Hector Perez. The movie is inspired from actual interviews writers David Damstaedter and Todd Anthony Bello had with Lavoe’s widow, Puchi and the film opens up with Puchi (Jennifer Lopez) recounting Lavoe’s story to a reporter in the old Fania Records studios. This reminiscent story telling style is highly effective; it maintains both interest and a sense of anticipation while decades of Lavoe’s personal and professional highs and lows are explored.
The audience learns that Lavoe (Marc Anthony), was the son of a Puerto Rican guitarist (Fania Allstar Ismael Miranda), who defies his father’s wishes that he remain on the island and perform in a local orchestra. Instead, Lavoe like his brother before him, leaves Puerto Rico in the 1960’s to pursue his passion for music in the streets of New York. There, Lavoe encounters a city that quickly embraces his distinctive sound.
Content performing in music halls throughout New York City, one day, as fate would have it; Latin music mogul Johnnie Pacheco (Nelson Vasquez) is in the audience during one of Lavoe’s performances. He encourages Lavoe to join forces with another Latin musician, trombonist Willie Colon (John Ortiz), believing a combination of their unique sounds was just the right mix that the new generation audiences had been waiting for. The die hard Puerto Rican and the Nuyorican collaborate and history is created; the salsa music genre is born. Testament to his “arrival”, Lavoe and Colon are offered a recording contract with Fania Records, the Latin version of Motown and Lavoe is given the legendary moniker, Lavoe, inspired by the French word for “the Voice”.
As the old saying goes, behind every great man is a great woman, and for Lavoe that woman is Puchi. Puchi describes their mutual attraction as instantaneous, and her belief that Lavoe was destined for stardom unfaltering. Not to be deterred by numerous cultural differences, Puchi and Lavoe embark on an admittedly dysfunctional love affair that spans two decades and survives the greatest of extremes. From infidelity and commitment aversion, to marriage, the birth of a son and sold out performances with Puchi dancing at Lavoe’s side, the marriage endures.
But as the prophetic lyrics of Lavoe’s greatest hits suggest, all good things do come to an end. Eventually Lavoe’s drug addiction threatens his marriage and destroys his relationship with Colon. While managing to achieve a commercially successful solo career, this too is overshadowed by Lavoe’s personal tragedies. Lavoe is diagnosed as HIV positive, and tries to commit suicide before meeting an untimely death in 1993 due to complications of AIDS.
While the film is co-produced by Lopez, she nonetheless demonstrates the acting chops to carry her role, portraying a character like none she has ever played before. In fact Lopez delivers her best performance ever; a performance that is likely to garner an acclaim that she has not received since her Golden Globe nomination for the 1997 film Selena. As for the role of Lavoe, while admittedly cliché’, it was a role iconic salsero Anthony was born to play. In their first onscreen collaboration together, Anthony holds his own opposite Lopez. He captures the complexities and emotions of the successful but tormented soul. From the love Lavoe had for his young son Tito; to his passion when performing alongside Colon to his self destructive intravenous drug use, Anthony delivers it all with disturbing realism.
Ichaso, director of 1985’s Crossover Dreams, a film about an aspiring salsa star which featured Latin Grammy winner and actor Ruben Blades, was a logical choice for director of this film. After his work with Crossover Dreams and El Cantante, one can only hope that Ichaso will be tapped to direct a final installment about the last of the “Holy trio”, the “architect”, Willie Colon. Should that happen, Ortiz, who was most recently seen in Miami Vice and who was superb in his portrayal of Colon in El Cantante, should be able to name his price.
The cast, the costumes, the cinematography and the soundtrack of El Cantante (recorded by Anthony) all come together perfectly. It is a fitting tribute to Lavoe, who notwithstanding great success, remained a man modest enough to walk the streets amongst his people. El Cantante will make the older generation of salsa loyalists proud and generate a whole new legion of fans, instilling in them too an adoration and nostalgia for Salsa’s true pioneer.