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Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

El Cantante

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Jacqueline Monahan

El Cantante

Las Vegas Round The Clock - http://www.lasvegasroundtheclock.com
Jacqueline Monahan is an English tutor for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also a consultant for Columbia College Chicago in Adjunct Faculty Affairs
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El Cantante follows the rise to fame of Salsa singer/originator Hector Perez, (Marc Anthony) who changed his last name to Lavoe (meaning the voice in French) and then went on to conquer the Latin sound of the seventies with an Afro-Caribbean flavor that came to be known as Salsa. Founding label Fania Records and collaborator/trombonist Willie Colon (John Ortiz) made the journey and blazed the trail with him. From the 60’s to the 80’s we follow Lavoe’s rise as a Latin sensation.

And then there’s Puchi (Jennifer Lopez). A more appropriate title for this film would be La Esposa del Cantante, (The Singer’s Wife) because this is Lopez’s vehicle from start to finish. She is the driving force, the one you can’t pull your eyes away from; the fiery Puchi Lavoe, who takes no prisoners, is both protective and harsh with those she loves. Even though she had to drag Lavoe out of a drug-laden orgy on their wedding day, the two began a long and turbulent union. Understanding wife? Puchi wrote the book, and then ripped it to shreds.

Lavoe is a fast living singer, wanting to do the right thing but forgetting how in a haze of drugs and alcohol. Caustic and outspoken, Puchi is protective of her man even when she doesn’t agree with him. The passion between the two is evident and flows throughout most of their long marriage. They never divorce, but have a tempestuous union that included infidelity, drugs, and beloved son, Tito. With fame and money came addiction, judgment errors, the fear of obscurity, and the suicide attempt. Hector is a mess who needs a strong woman like Puchi in his life. The couple’s dynamic is as passionate in love and turmoil as their spicy music and lifestyle would illustrate.

Anthony comes alive on stage with his closed eyes and voice of pure emotion, something that is lacking in non-singing scenes (except when he is using). He lacks the magnetism and star quality of his wife but is a perfect foil for her emotion. He can be the drugged talent in a stupor while she whirlwinds around the room. He can be subtle while she violently loves him. He just can’t be convincingly passionate back in her direction, but we forgive him. Puchi has enough energy to power a small building. He’s no match for her. As talented a singer as Marc Anthony is, he can’t hold a candle to Lopez’s major star quality and luminescence here. Although Anthony is a triple platinum artist, his wife is a triple threat. You can’t help but think he’s just some guy, not the guy who put Salsa on the map. Still, he gives it his best shot and is able to evoke Lavoe’s pain and ambivalence, albeit on a quieter scale.

John Ortiz as Lavoe’s longtime collaborator Willie Colon is a sympathetic friend who completely contrasts Lavoe in lifestyle choices. The inevitable rift between friends occurs as does a reconciliation, all too little too late for the singer to reverse his downward spiral.

Lopez is magnificent in her portrayal of Puchi, whose tragic end mirrored Hector’s and their own son Tito’s. No one leaves the earth naturally in this family. Lopez’ hard- edged demeanor keeps the film from slipping into soggy, weepy melodrama. Puchi will not let this happen, so send no pity her way. She will tell you her story without tears and you must listen without judgment. Firearm violence, medical problems, and self-destructive behavior all hunted the tempestuous family, as did drugs, excesses, in-fighting, infidelity, and even tremendous fame carrying all such pitfalls with it. The great love between Hector and Puchi resonates throughout the film. A tough Bronx Latina, Puchi is Hector’s initial salvation, advocate and later fierce protector of his legacy with an interview taped shortly before her death.

Not since Selena have I looked upon Lopez’s work with such admiration. Whatever quality some performers possess that is simply called IT, encompassing a certain something, Lopez has it, uses it, evokes it and makes us see it.

Cuban-American director Leon Ichaso takes you on a journey of discovery and disappointment, delight and despair. The film cleverly draws in non- Spanish speakers by showing the salsa lyrics in English as they are being sung by Hector in Spanish. The lyrics are seductive as they appear and fade, slide and sway to Anthony’s smooth interpretations. His voice is used in all of Lavoe’s songs. Ichaso made the decision early on not to put Anthony in a fat suit to portray Lavoe’s later years, allowing Anthony to make the role uniquely his.

El Cantante is a fascinating labor of love by Lopez and Anthony, dedicated to the music of their roots and to the people who lived wildly, tragically and in the moment to bring Salsa to life, even while unsuccessfully managing their own.