The past few years have seen the development of a frustratingly homogenous one-size-fits-all stylistic template for biopics about superstar junkies, obscuring their uniqueness and playing up their similarities to other famous addicts. In a frustrating bit of cinematic geometry, Ray Charles (Ray) becomes Edie Sedgwick (Factory Girl) becomes John Holmes (Wonderland) becomes salsa legend Hector Lavoe in the disappointing new biopic El Cantante. The multiple film stocks, jittery editing, heavy period detail, brooding acting-class dramatics, hand-held cameras, and "edgy" zooms can all be traced back to the masterful last hour of Goodfellas. But what was revolutionary in 1990 became a lazy jumble of overwrought clichés long ago.
Marc Anthony plays Lavoe as a Puerto Rican who immigrates to New York as a nobody entranced by the city's live-wire energy. He's only a battery of screaming headlines and a star-making montage away from rising to fame as the king of salsa, a vibrant musical mongrel that reflects the rich multiculturalism of New York as well its roots south of the border. Producer Jennifer Lopez co-stars as Anthony's wife, a tough but co-dependent enabler who stuck with Anthony even as he fell helplessly into a downward spiral of heroin, infidelity, and professional suicide.
Cantante introduces intriguing, relevant themes one minute, only to abandon them the next. A promising early scene finds Anthony confronting the ugly realities of the music business, but that's the last time his relationship with iconic salsa label Fania is ever addressed. Similarly, the thorny cultural politics of salsa are given short shrift in favor of lots of big Oscar moments for Lopez, who provides the film's hokey faux-documentary framing device and threatens to steal the spotlight by vamping from the sidelines when Anthony is performing onstage. Anthony delivers a respectable performance, but his character never comes into sharp focus. Consequently, Lavoe emerges as a supporting character in his own story. One minute, he's a wide-eyed innocent, the next he's a philandering junkie destroying the lives of those who love him. Apparently, the filmmakers feel that the best way to pay tribute to Lavoe's legacy is by reducing him to just another artistic cliché.