Like the sonnet, the modern musical biopic opposes the mortality of man with the immortality of song. And whether the subject is a jazzman (Bird), pop singer (Ray), or chanteuse (La Vie en Rose), the rhythms and rules of the musical biopic are nearly as codified as those of a sonnet, too. Almost inevitably the biopic subject is a meteor and the narrative suspense is, will it light up the sky or crash to earth?
El Cantante (The Singer), Leon Ichaso's haunting portrait of salsa king Héctor Lavoe, is a biopic of the second kind. It's a soaring, crashing, blazing affair with pyrotechnic performances by real-life spouses Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez as Lavoe and his wife, Puchi. Like a plane disaster, it holds you in thrall of ¡ay, Dios mio! drama.
Directed with palpable passion and terrific period feel by Ichaso, El Cantante has camerawork and editing that move with the 4/4 rhythm of salsa, upbeat even when the drama grows downbeat. The Cuba-born director's Hendrix and Piñero were about similarly self-destructive personalities, and his underknown Crossover Dreams (1985) was likewise set in the salsa clubs of Latin Manhattan.
Ichaso frames the film with black-and-white footage of Puchi (a deglamorized Lopez) reflecting on her tempestuous marriage with the Puerto Rico-born salsero. As the film proceeds it emerges that Puchi, a Lavoe adorer who becomes his keeper and ultimately his enabler, is a most unreliable narrator.
To paraphrase the title of an Off-Broadway play about the singer, the question haunting El Cantante is: What killed Héctor Lavoe?
Was it the disapproval of his musician father, who never forgave his son for leaving Ponce for Manhattan in 1963? The guilt of abandoning a son born out of wedlock when he married Puchi, at the time pregnant with his second son? The melancholy of the exile homesick for his native country, unable to fully inhabit his adopted land? The marriage to a wife who became his warden and drug supplier? Or was it the heroin?
Ichaso, who wrote the script with David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello, chronicles how hollow-cheeked Héctor Perez arrived in New York about the time Latin musicians connected the musical traditions of Africa and the Caribbean by fusing the rhythms of rhumba, mambo and jazz. They called it salsa. With trumpet player Willie Colon (John Ortiz in an undernourished role), Perez, rechristened Lavoe by his managers, popularized the new idiom. According to Ichaso's film, his high-voltage performances were fueled by drugs.
As Lavoe, Anthony, the salsa-monga balladeer, is electrifying. His interpretation of Lavoe is as a man capable of connecting with thousands in concert but unable to connect with his wife and son at home.
And as for Lopez, nothing in her previous work on screen prepares you for her role as Puchi, unsympathetic codependent of a sympathetic artist. Fearless is an overused adjective when it comes to actresses. But Lopez is fearless here. As Puchi she is unafraid to be hateful, unafraid to be greedy, unafraid to let the bitterness fly.
Here is one measure of Lopez's chilling performance: The only other actress I can imagine playing it this way is Barbara Stanwyck.
El Cantante *** (out of four stars)
Directed by Leon Ichaso, written by Ichaso, David Darmstaeder and Todd Bello, original music by Willie Colon and Andres Levin. With Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez. Distributed by Picturehouse.
Running time: 1 hour, 56 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, drugs, sexual candor)
Playing at: area theaters
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog, "Flickgrrl," at http://go.philly.com/flickgrrl/