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Cantante, El

Fueled by powerful performances from real-life marrieds Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, El Cantante is the Latin version of Walk the Line--only with better music.


Beginning as a black-and-white documentary, we meet Puchi (Lopez), the wife of salsa master Hector Lavoe (Anthony), who is reluctantly being interviewed. ''If you want someone else's version, then go get that,'' she quips to the documentary filmmaker. The film brightens to color when she reminisces about her two decades with the colorful singer from Puerto Rico. Puchi is a brash, outspoken woman, who knows the minute she meets Hector, he will become famous. And he does--rather quickly, too, after moving to New York and hooking up with bandleader and trombonist Willie Colon (Johnny Ortiz). Together, they revolutionize the sound and sensibility that redefined Latin music in the 1960s and '70s, becoming international sensations. But Lavoe also finds lots of other women and drugs along the way and ends up paying more attention to his vices than to his family, including his son, Tito, (Christopher Becerra). Puchi tries desperately to stop his downward spiral, but to no avail. Tragedy strikes when Lavoe dies prematurely in 1993 from complications related to AIDS.


Without a doubt, this is Lopez's most stunning and talented performances to date, her version of Salma Hayek's Frida or Madonna's Evita. The actress is captivating and gorgeous in every scene, even when she's crying or drug-addled. In the good, loving moments between Puchi and Hector, it's easy to see how the real-life couple may interact. As an actor, however, Anthony is harder to gauge because he is known more as a singer. Still, he fully embodies the well-known salsa star and gives it his all. Neither he nor Lopez should be overlooked when Oscar time rolls around. The movie is so dominated by this couple's dysfunctional relationship that hardly anyone else is even noticeable—except for maybe Ortiz, who does a fine job as the guy who's like a brother to the singer but also spiraling out of control just as much as Hector.


Director/co-writer Leon Ichaso was handpicked by producers Anthony and Lopez. Ichaso, best known for writing and directing Pinero, another Latin hero who falls on hard times. To string the story together, he allows the documentary style to interrupt the memories of Lavoe's life. He creatively uses settings in Puerto Rico and Manhattan and recreates incredible musical performances, including one at Madison Square Gardens, which Puchi describes as the highlight of their lives. The music and dancing makes it impossible to avoid tapping a foot or nodding to the music, but the best moment of El Cantante is when singer Ruben Blades stages the actual moment he first sang ''El Cantante'' to his friend, Hector Lavoe. It'll give you shivers.

Bottom Line rated this film 3 1/2 stars.