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"The Richard Burton and Liz Taylor of the barrio"

That's how director Leon Ichaso describes the relationship between Puerto Rican singer Hector Lavoe and his wife Puchi in El Cantante, which made its world premiere here last night. The story of Lavoe, who popularized salsa music in New York City in the 1970s and 80s, shares more than a few similarities with the ones recounted in Ray and Walk the Line - drug addiction, marital strife, the pressures of stardom - except that Lavoe's is infinitely more tragic.


To his credit, Ichaso does not attempt to sugarcoat the reality of Lavoe's life: If anything, the movie could have used less darkness and more levity. The script, which Ichaso co-wrote, nimbly covers more than 20 years of Lavoe's life and career, but lacks the depth and dimension to properly convey what made Lavoe tick.

The casting of Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez is both blessing and curse: It's undeniably entertaining to watch the real-life couple tear into each other during hysterical, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?-scale arguments, or snorting lines of cocaine and cackling madly while riding around 80s-era Manhattan in the back of a limo. But the actors' personas are ultimately too big for the characters they are playing: Despite the filmmakers' obvious affection for Lavoe and his legacy, El Cantante is more The Marc and J-Lo Show than anything else.

But the plentiful musical numbers, which Ichaso choreographs and directs with tremendous energy and style, are all outstanding - joyous, infectious, and worth the price of a ticket. Even if you've never heard of Levoe, El Cantante is bound to turn you into an instant fan, a testament to both the singer's talent and Anthony's excellent re-recordings of his songs.

The movie is currently on the market for a U.S. distributor has been picked up for U.S. distribution for a reported $6 million by Picturehouse, the same company releasing Guillermo Del Toro's marvelous Pan's Labyrinth in December. However the movie fares, I suspect the soundtrack album will be a big hit. Despite its flaws, El Cantante is also instantly recognizable as a story about Hispanics told and acted by Hispanics, which should earn it an audience beyond Lavoe's considerable fan base.


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