Imagine if, say, Marvin Gaye was known almost exclusively to R&B fans alone and Halle Berry decided to wield her Hollywood clout to make a Gaye biopic based on the experiences of his wife Anna Gordy. That analogy should give you a pretty good idea of what El Cantante, nominally the story of salsa legend Hector Lavoe, is all about. What it doesn't tell you is what made Lavoe a towering figure or how he got there. And, regrettably, neither does the movie.
Directed by Leon Ichaso (Crossover Dreams, Piñero) and produced by Jennifer Lopez's Nuyorican Productions, this starring vehicle for Lopez and her real-life husband, salsa star Marc Anthony, is possibly the most expensive Lifetime movie ever made. Yes, thankfully, the musical performances are on-point but they can't redeem this cliché-fest from the hole it digs itself in. Of course, the choice to base the movie on the perspective of the subject's wife is a legitimate one. It's obviously the story that those involved in this project wanted to tell.
Whether this was a genuine commercial and/or artistic consideration or a simple question of vanity on Lopez's part so that she could play a character with more prominence in the film is of relative importance. (Lopez had previously tried to produce and star in a biopic about another Latin music icon, La Lupe, but it never got off the ground.) What smacks of hubris, ignorance or just plain cluelessness is that Lopez would consider this film, under those circumstances, a definitive take on Lavoe. "I don't know what movie they want to see, because this is the truth," she told the press at El Cantante's Hollywood premiere. Really? Wow.
Needless to say, we wanted more from El Cantante. Lavoe's biopic could've been a step towards educating those in the dark about salsa's importance and commercial prominence in its heyday. Especially when we regularly come across such inaccuracies as Billy Joel's 1990 concert at Yankee Stadium being touted as the first musical event ever held there. (Actually, The Isley Brothers put together a show at the Stadium in 1969!) As a matter of record, monster salsa collective the Fania All Stars--a group showcasing the Fania label's numerous talents--played various sold out shows at the Yankee home park during the '70s and even released live albums commemorating this as further proof. (1975's Live at Yankee Stadium was included in the list of recordings preserved in the United States National Recording Registry.) Admittedly, this is perhaps placing too much responsibility on a sole film, but Lavoe--and salsa fans--didn't deserve this half-baked, made for TV mediocrity, either.
As expected, reviews have generally been negative and contemporaries of Lavoe who worked on the movie in one capacity or another--among them fellow salsa legend Willie Colon, and vocalist Ismael Miranda, who does a decent job on screen as Lavoe's father--have come out swinging with their scathing assessment of the finished product. Not a good mix. So, in the meantime, if you want to know what made the man great, skip the flick and start by picking up Fania Records' recently released 2 CD retrospective, La Voz. Otherwise, well, better luck next time. To all of us.