Friday, March 5, 2010

El Cantante - Poor Skeletor

I have issues with bio-pics in general, but it's often the most reasonable way to absorb the trajectory of the lives of somewhat interesting all the way to immensely "important" and "significant" people.

El Cantante is just such a confection, but it's a sour candy that's hard to bite. The arc of the story starts with a pseudo documentary shot of the over-pretty wife of the picture's star, Jennifer Lopez, complaining unprovoked and byotchin' in solid Bronxonian fashion, channeling a bad Rosie Perez, that she best not be dissed or she was out of here, apparently in response to "please have a seatt" coming off-camera from one of the pseudo-documentarians. It's not entirely clear at the outset that the character Ms. Lopez plays, that of Puchi LaVoe, will be our one and sole guide to Hector LaVoe's life. As the film progresses, this quote of a film form that's never entirely executed becomes progressively misleading and violates a basic necessary element of any movie experience - the suspension of disbelief.

And so, Puchi's narrative begins with a young Hector Lavoe, played by Skeletor look-alike Marc Anthony, singing lustily with his father in the Old San Juan of 1963, after which Dad warns this son that if he insists on going to New York, where he "already lost one son" that it would be Hector that would be losing a father. The very next shot is a grainy b-roll of the New York skyline, sans the Towers with highly FX'ed swipe-cuts to the Beatles arriving at Idelwild. Hector and the Beatles, both invade New York at the same moment. I'm guessing the Fab Four had better PR than the PR.

Poor Hector rides the rocket to fame in moments, it seems, generating and enduring tragedy in his wake. But, apparently, says his still-living wife, he was corny. And that's why everyone loved him. What?

Let's step to some of the annoying temporal inaccuracies. On Hector's first night in Neuvo York, according to the film, he hooked up with Latin star Willie Colon. In fact, it took LaVoe four years of working in clubs around town before encountering and ultimately recording with Colon. In another scene, after he starts working with Colon, he's introduced to Jerry Masucci and Johnny Pachecohe's "new" Latin record label, Fania. That would have been in 1967, when he started working with Colon. Huh? Time compression is usual in movies, sure, but there must be some device between one time period and another that tell the audience, "time is passing here, K?"

As a good and kindly audience, perhaps we can set aside some fact-smooshing. It's nothing new for movies, making characters and places fit better to a timeline so that the pace is "correct," that is. But director Leon Ichaso applies his TV-movie-like skills with all too much force to both the timelines and characters. Pucci is a bitch from the get-go and poor Hector seems to be a drug addict from moment number two. And all other characters are non-dimensional, sort of like still-photos with captions in the form of lines of dialogue.

"Stand up, we're getting married," says Puchi to her heroin-addled husband when she finally tracks him down, preist in tow, at a hotel room littered with the remains of what was either an orgy or a frat party. The humor is not funny. At all. It's disturbing and very hard to believe that both these characters could be so destructive as to follow any path to each other, regardless of what the most basic common sense and value-based upbringing might bring. It just doesn't make sense. And, yes, unless you're David Lynch, it has to make some kind of sense. It's one of the basic concepts of filmmaking that makes a film a film. The viewer had better leave their disbelief outside the theater or the story won't fly. So, Mr. Ichaso, please remember that a short story is not a novel. Mostly, though, to the great filmmakers, the events are important, but not so important as to exclude the characters we came to find out about. Characters drive the story, so, a script on the versa enslaves the actors, sidelining character development. No, wait: it's the director's job to insure that doesn't happen and director Ichaso does not make that Job One in El Cantante.

"He looked like an innocent Jibaro choir boy, but, he wasn't." But he was corny. So, the director telegraphs the love-hate-love-hate-hate-hate-love-hate relationship that his wife, whom Hector affectionately reminds of his love through the film, though she truly seems non-plussed. "Yeah, yeah, you always love me when you're high," she says to him while cramming coke up his nose, to which he responds, "And I'm always high." To which she displays the loving gaze of, well, a wedding planner.

We are forced to watch Hector destroy himself with drugs and depression without having any real idea, except for a passing impression from Puchi, what made him tick. Her explanations, sometimes ending with "know what I mean . . . I don't know." do not help. As Lavoe returns to Puerto Rico, we have no idea why he winds up in Bayamon, a drug and gang ghetto to this day in San Juan, apparently without visiting his beloved father, to shoot up for some period of time while we're treated to flashback and sidebacks and forwardflashes, whatever you might want to call them, that are fragmented and meant to suggest drug-addledness, so it must be what's going on in his mind, I guess, since it's never connected or explained. And still, no idea of what's troubling the "poor choir-boy," corny Hector. His terror is not only not spelled out, but we're not given the benefit of the basic alphabet of his pain. Nada.

Did I mention yet that Hector was from Ponce, a city a hundred miles to the south, and not San Juan?

The musical performances are too terse and endlessly interrupted with cross-shots at Jenny From The Block, moaning, pacing, pecking and scratching, puffing at Newports like a non-smoker. Each segment is replete with shaking, over-saturated camera work meant to heighten the tension in-frame, as if the cameraperson is always ready to dodge a bullet or chair, a la Hill Street Blues. But that pseudo-cinema-verite camera work when used in drama was a fad and the fad is over. Stop it, now.

Either these characters were this shallow and destructive, or the script is lying and the director, Ichaso, is just phoning it in. Or, he's trying his best, given his pedigree in TV.

And, of course, Lavoe cracks up, gets sober, get religion in, and I clocked it, under ten minutes. More flashbacks, sidebacks. Bad stuff happens and then, more bad stuff happens. At one particularly terrible moment, Hector says to Puchi that they don't talk anymore, that this has just occured to him. I don't believe this - that's not what I would be thinking about, nor would you. And that's why the story, though it's true, does not work as a story. The drama is real, but contrite and compressed and empty, meaning to hit all the marks in the timeline, leaving the characters in the dust.

I don't have the heart to blame either Anthony or Lopez. Marc Anthony has a short list of film experience but he's not as bad as you might think. I get the feeling that, if the film were focused more on Lavoe's character and his trajectory into despair and destruction because of that character, Anthony would have been able to pull it down just fine. Lopez is seasoned and capable, but here, she's an utter character actor playing an unlikable, unbelievable and dimensionless character. Too bad, really. Plus, she manages to span three decades by aging about a week. Change of haristyle doesn't do it.

Hector Lavoe had a significant role as a star in bringing Salsa music to new levels of commercial success and listening to his music, there can be no doubt that he had talent to spare. It's a shame he drove himself to destruction. It can't be doubted that Anthony and Lopez were influenced by his hits as they grew up, especially with their music talent. So, a certain amount of reverence is understandable. But LaVoe was who he was and we can't see through the haze of tortured-soul sentimentality that we're supposed to take on faith was the root of his self-directed downfall.

Unfortunately, El Cantante doesn't celebrate either side of life's coin Lavoe flipped, leaving us with a tired effort too thin for the theatres, too annoying for DVD and too racy to flop around on Lifetime, no matter how many oral contraceptive ads are inserted by the network. Like Puchi, this movie is bitchy and irritating, and when it's over, it's not entirely clear why.

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