Leon Ichaso’s El Cantante blows its load early. Jennifer Lopez, sporting big hair and even bigger fur, struts out of a town car and nonchalantly walks into a crack house to collect her man. “I love this life,” Jenny from the Block intones, Animotion’s “Obsession” sexing up the film’s soundtrack as she licks white powder from Marc Anthony’s lapel and crotch. Ichaso is fascinated with smut about as much as he is with the emotional desolation that opulence attempts to mask, and he has an uncanny talent for locating New York City streets that are throwbacks to a bygone way of life. He could make a CD system look like an eight-track if he aimed his camera at it long enough, but while El Cantante‘s opening sequence is ridiculously hot, the rest of it is as dull as week-old mofongo.
The film coasts on famed salsa legend Hector Lavoe’s music and Anthony’s impassioned performance (Anthony, who proved he could be taken seriously as an actor with Martin Scorsese’s Bringing Out the Dead, nails Lavoe’s unique improvisational flamboyance), but it makes way to many concessions to the Ray mode of biopic storytelling. This is less a movie than a convulsive promo reel, with transitional moments in Lavoe’s life evoked using montages of poster art, album covers, and newspaper clippings scored to relentless salsa music that’s translated on-screen during Lavoe’s concert performances. (The singer’s introduction to heroin is interpreted in that same Olympian doom-and-gloom manner that Taylor Hackford shot Ray Charles’s, with Lavoe walking in on his friend shooting up as the bathroom door closes behind them; apparently heroin is the drug that dares not show its face—and if it does, it’s through a cloudy and jittery J-horror lens.)
A few gorgeous shots of Puerto Rico are meant to convey Lavoe’s spiritual connection to the island, just as a few cursory scenes of the man’s father acting like a prick attempt to rationalize the singer’s self-destruction. These stabs at psychological insight are paltry but not as unfortunate as the story’s framing devices, which have Lopez, as Lavoe’s wife Nilda (“Puchi” to her friends), narrating the story from the present-day (2002 to be exact) in old-age makeup that’s as dubious as the black-and-white film stock. Lopez, predictably self-conscious, is never convincing, but at least the brazen self-aggrandizement of these sequences (to me they serve no legitimate purpose beyond pumping up Lopez’s screen time) complements Puchi’s own.