[Screen It]

(2007) (Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez) (R)

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Drama: A salsa singer rises to fame in New York City in the 1960s and '70s, only to encounter the usual and various pitfalls that often face such artists.
It's 2002 and Puchi Lavoe (JENNIFER LOPEZ) is looking back at the life and times of her husband, Héctor Lavoe (MARC ANTHONY), who was once king of the world of salsa. Flashing back to 1963, Héctor Perez is a young singer who performs with his father (ISMAEL MIRANDA) on the streets of Ponce, Puerto Rico. Yet, he knows he must travel to the U.S. if he wants to make it big, so against his father's wishes, he arrives in New York City in 1963.

There, a young worker, Eddie (MANNY PEREZ), gets him into a club and Héctor is immediately entranced by the scene. It isn't long before he's up there on the stage, doing his thing, and drawing the attention of Johnny Pacheco (NELSON VASQUEZ), a famous bandleader, and his record label partner, Jerry Masucci (FEDERICO CASTELLUCCIO). Johnny sets up Héctor with another musician, Willie Colon (JOHN ORTIZ), and the two are soon a big hit, drawing in the crowds and, in Héctor's case, with his new last name, the attention of a pretty clubgoer by the name of Puchi.

The two are soon an item, but her introduction of him to drugs soon backfires as he dives into them with abandon, including the use of heroin. Nevertheless, they get married, eventually have a child, Tito (played at successive ages by JARED EVERLETH, BERNARD HERNANDEZ and CHRISTOPHER BECERRA), and he continues to experience great success in the new music genre known as salsa.

Yet, his drug habit becomes too cumbersome, eventually putting a strain on both his career and his relationship with Puchi. From that point on, and as she tries to help while also enabling him, he experiences the highs and lows of being a famous singer.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Most everybody's probably familiar with the saying, "Sex, drugs and rock 'n roll," and the first two parts of that appropriately describe the "benefits" and pitfalls of being famous, or even just half-famous in that particular music genre. Of course, groupies and illegal narcotics aren't limited to just rockers, a point proved -- as in many films preceding it and I'm sure more that will follow -- in "El Cantante."

It's the tale "inspired by" the life and times of legendary performer Héctor Lavoe. While that name might not be familiar to the average moviegoer or even music lover, he's well known in the world of salsa (and not the kind that George and Jerry loved pronouncing on "Seinfeld") where he was a big hit in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s.

While the music is great -- and might get the old hips swaying to the beat around which one's toes will likely be tapping -- this is otherwise a mediocre biopic detailing the rise and fall of a singer, which isn't exactly a novel thing anymore and especially nowadays. For it follows in the fairly large footsteps of the highly acclaimed and far better genre flicks, "Ray" and "Walk the Line."

Not only does this one pale in comparison in terms of overall production value, but it also only skims the surface of what makes its characters tick. Instead, it falls into the trap of just showcasing and touching on the various elements oft seen in most such pics.

There are the early days, which are then followed by the quick climb to success and early fame, the meeting of and wooing the love interest, and then the introduction of mind-altering substances that eventually become the downfall of both the singer's personal and professional life.

Perhaps if we'd never seen those better films or others of their ilk, this one might come off as more interesting. Then again, the filmmakers don't seem that interested in delving into the psyche of what makes a person desire fame, achieve it, and then throw it all away due to carelessness and/or a false belief in being infallible.

Instead, we get Jennifer Lopez delivering much of the character and plot explanations via a hindsight-based, post-story, on-camera interview where she spouts all sorts of stilted dialogue that occasionally approaches a certain ludicrousness in terms of telling us what we already know or expect, albeit in an overblown, narrative fashion.

Her character isn't likeable in the "present day" interviews (set in 2002), and since we meet her first and then repeatedly return to her when needed, that makes it harder to like her in the scenes set earlier in the film. Aside from the stilted interview dialogue, Lopez (one of the film's producers) is generally okay.

As the protagonist, Marc Anthony fares better, probably because he's up there singing the songs (in Spanish, thus causing director Leon Ichaso to choose putting artsy-style subtitles on the screen as lyric translations), and he's a decent actor in his own right. Thankfully, the real life couple avoids the "Gigli" factor (back when J-Lo costarred with her significant other at the time, Ben Affleck) and are fine together.

Yet, they can't overcome the genre formulations that Ichaso and co-writers David Darmstaedter & Todd Anthony Bello pile up in front of them like so many conditions that must be met to get from point A to Z. Thankfully, there's plenty of the real artist's music (as performed by Anthony) to help carry them and the viewer, at least partially, over all of those plot-based speed bumps.

Even if you've never heard any of Lavoe's work, you'll likely come away from the film with a song in your heart and a lighter, salsa step to your feet. Entertaining to hear but otherwise a by the books biopic about the highs and lows of musical fame, "El Cantante" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed July 23, 2007 / Posted August 3, 2007

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