A gorgeous woman dressed to the nines pulls up in front of a rundown tenement. Exiting a black-stretch limo with a practiced don’t-mess-with-me demeanor, she walks under dim street lights through ghoulish shapes that suggest something coughed up from the underground. Entering the blighted property, she navigates through trash into what was once an apartment—a “shooting gallery” where addicts lay in various states of consciousness.
She grabs one of the nodders off the floor, and guides him out to the limo, which takes off like a presidential entourage under attack. She cleans him up the best she can, puts some cocaine up his nose to awaken him, shoves him out the door and into the club.
This engaging opening of “El Cantante” promises more than the film can deliver. The uneven narrative snakes through the history of Héctor Lavoe (Marc Anthony), a Puerto Rican singer, associated with the creation of Salsa. The story of Hector and Puchi (Jennifer Lopez), their marital confrontations, drug use and life on the road, becomes the latest addition to the talented-musician-gets-high-and-dies genre.
Like all portrayals of addicts, the role requires a sallow complexion, incoherent diction and the periodic inability to hold the body or any particular part of it erect. The trick for an actor is to bring a strong presence that counterbalances the dissipation of the body and soul. Cast opposite his dynamic real-life wife, singer and infrequent actor Marc Anthony’s naturally unimposing stature becomes even less so.
Héctor becomes weathered while Puchi’s beauty curiously remains intact. It recalls the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues,” when Diana Ross, playing addicted blues singer Billie Holiday, slurs incoherently to a devilishly handsome Billy Dee Williams.
“Jennie from the Block” looks anything but. Yes, J Lo’s undeniably ethnic and there’s no reason to question the sincerity of her attempts to connect with her origins.
But from the beginning of “El Cantante,” whether in a crowd or set alone at the edge of the stage, she commands a special attention. Posed defiantly with her chin lifted just so slightly or defying anatomical mechanics swiveling her hips to the music, she’s from a separate pedigree. In close-ups, especially profiles, she’s breathtaking.
Lopez stretches herself in “El Cantante” from girlfriend, to wife and protector, with varied success. There are segments inserted of Puchi as an aged and embittered widow being interviewed on the life her late husband. In these scenes, the tone of vile contempt, provoked by inquiries of a reporter who is light years and several cultures from understanding anything about her or her husband, is beyond the actor’s repertoire.
“El Cantante” entertains in spurts, especially those involving music. But the narrative is limp and there are just not enough “moments” to compensate. Lopez, although growing as an actress, can’t carry this one by herself.
But it’s a brave attempt, as she also produced this movie, hopefully is a stepping stone to more accomplished efforts.
Lester Gray reviews movies for Examiner.com. Read reviews by all of Examiner's film critics.