Still Waiting for El Cantante to Sing
Several weeks ago, I saw El Cantante, a biopic whose subject is the late, great salsero Héctor Lavoe. If you know anything already about the film, you’re aware that it stars Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez (who was one of the film’s producers) and was directed by Cuban director Leon Ichaso. It is also, as many reviewers have noted, a supremely bad example of what happens when Hollywood films endeavor to take on musical subjects.
In most cases, studio people (and perhaps directors and screenwriters) assume that audiences will be bored by seeing the work that an artist puts into her/his craft. So, rather than see someone practicing, struggling to get a usable take in the recording studio, or working out a composition/arrangement, we only see that person inspiredly making music on stage. At worst, those strategies perpetuate romantic myths about artists being transcendent beings who have gifts others don’t possess. That is, such films depict artistry as being solely a function of inspiration. Even in a mostly successful film like Ray, attempts at realism are undercut by a need to make everything (and sadly every song) seem as though it were somehow autobiographical—thereby masking the importance of recognizing popular music, like its counterparts, as performance.
In the case of El Cantante, such strategies left me feeling that the filmmakers missed an important opportunity. What made Lavoe so great, in fact, was that he was a great singer and improviser with a deep knowledge of and respect for singers who came before him (it’s little wonder that we don’t see/hear Lavoe improvising on screen until the very end of the movie). Indeed, in his improvised calls on the song (written by Rubén Blades) that gave the film its name, he mentions a few who were important: “Vamos a hacer una descarga / Con los cantantes mejores / Mis saludos a Celia, Rivera, Feliciano / Esos son grandes cantores / Ellos cantan de verdad / Siempre ponen gozar a la gente / Escuchen bien su cantar / Aprendan de los mejores…” Roughly translated, he’s singing “We’re going to jam / With the best singers / My greetings to Celia [Cruz], [Ismael] Rivera, [Cheo] Feliciano / They’re important singers / Who sang the truth, / Always brought joy to the people / Listen closely to their singing / Learn from the best…”. Are those words that would be improvised by someone who didn’t deeply understand his craft and the effort he put into it?
While most commentators have rightly complained about the excessive focus on “Puchi” (Nilda Pérez, Lavoe’s wife, portrayed by Lopez), there is at least one other major criticism I have. It concerns the confusion about the film’s intended audience. I’m sympathetic to the implicit desire to reach a Latino (and mainly Puerto Rican) audience as well as a non-Latino audience, but the ways that aim was communicated left me puzzled. Many of the songs superbly sung on-screen (and on the soundtrack) by Anthony had annoying animated English translations that moved around the screen. Translating the songs is one thing, but making the translations cartoonish is, well, silly. Likewise, the filmmakers used music to mark the passage of time with a non-Latino audience in mind. For the late 1970s, for example, we hear disco; for the early 1980s, it’s hip-hop. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that Latinos don’t have love for and deep familiarity with a wide range of popular musics, but the choices made for the film seem to be all about pandering to an audience with little-to-no knowledge of Latin popular music. When I saw the film, I was perhaps the only non-native Spanish speaker in the audience: everyone else wasn’t part of the audience the filmmakers seemed to be trying to serve. Who, really, were they expecting? It was gratifying, though, to hear people singing along with all of the songs—Chicago has a Puerto Rican population that rivals New York’s.
As was the case in other biopics, this one took a number of liberties and focused excessively on aspects of the subject’s life that, while important, still failed to account for his stature. On one hand, there’s Victor Manuelle in a brief cameo as Blades singing “El Cantante” in a club and publicly declaring that it’s a tune for Lavoe. I’m fairly certain things didn’t happen that way, but perhaps the writers felt that was the best way to make the connection. On the other, we see Lavoe’s debilitating drug habit (and dramatized suicide attempt) much more than we see, as noted above, his work on being a performer. If a film is going to make a case for someone, it needs to do that and leave the clichés behind. Indeed, if you really want to know why Lavoe was great, just how revered he was, check out Wilson Valentín-Escobar’s essay in the book Situating Salsa. I doubt that the filmmakers saw or ever heard about it.
Still, the film wasn’t a total disaster. Its most brilliant moments were those where Marc Anthony reminded those who know his work (and showed those who don’t) what a brilliant singer he is. At one and the same time, he managed to evoke the artistry of Lavoe and to add his personal stamp to it. A better film would have featured not only more of him singing/performing, but also more clues as to why Lavoe is so revered among Boricuas and other lovers of fine music. I hope someone returns to Lavoe one day and makes that very film…