El Cantante

Familiarity with someone’s work is not a prerequisite for enjoying a movie about that person’s life. Just last week I saw “La Vie en Rose,” a well-made film about French singer Edith Piaf, about whom I knew almost nothing. But what that film does — and what “El Cantante,” about ’70s salsa singer Hector Lavoe, fails to do — is show us why the performer was so beloved. To put it bluntly: Why should I care who Hector Lavoe was? “El Cantante” does nothing to answer that question.

If the film is any indication, Lavoe’s life was a cycle of fame, drugs, money, and self-destruction. Since this is more or less the same cycle as has been portrayed in countless other musical biopics, you’ll forgive me if my attention is not immediately grabbed.

What I do notice, though, is that this appears to have been a vanity project for Jennifer Lopez and her husband, Marc Anthony. (Hey, appearing onscreen with her lovers has worked so well in the past, so why not try it again?) Anthony plays Lavoe and Lopez plays Puchi, his controlling, enabling, shrewish wife. The jokes practically write themselves, people.

Lavoe was born in Puerto Rico and moved to New York in the mid-’60s, when he was 17. Most of the film is set in the ’60s and ’70s, as the salsa craze — Latin music combining elements of mambo, rumba, meringue, and jazz — is first catching on. Singing for Willie Colon’s band, Hector quickly becomes a star, though his unreliability due to his heroin use and general flakiness creates conflict with his bandmates.

Through it all there is Puchi, a lifelong New Yorker with Puerto Rican roots. She’s the one who first gives Hector some weed to smoke, an experience so nasty for him that he vows never to try drugs again. Then he sees someone doing heroin, and the film moves to slow-motion while the soundtrack swells with dark, ominous music. Dun-dun-DUNNNNNN!

Puchi and Hector’s relationship is stormy, to put it mildly. On their wedding day, he’s late to the church because he’s recovering from a night of hookers and cocaine in a hotel room. Puchi marches in with a priest in tow and orders them married on the spot. For her part, she loves the wealth and fame and may or may not be cheating on Hector. A couple scenes show them happy; a couple dozen scenes show them screaming at each other.

But never mind the trite melodrama. The film’s most glaring deficiency is its utter inability to show us why Hector Lavoe was popular. The performance scenes are plentiful enough, and the music is as spicy and energetic as you’d expect salsa music to be. Yet Hector’s singing ability and general stage presence are merely average. So why was he a big deal? Was it because he was one of the first? Or was the real Hector Lavoe far more charismatic than Marc Anthony is playing him?

I think the latter might be the case. Anthony is a pop star, but he’s not exactly a charmer, nor is he exactly an actor. As Hector, he comes across as grim, sullen, and uninteresting. The fact that his deep-set eyes and pale, wasted face make him look like a zombie anyway does not help.

As for Lopez, though her diva-like attitude is well-documented in real life, in the movies she has usually come across as supremely likable and sweet, even when (as was often the case) her movies weren’t any good. Here, finally, she acts approximately like herself: cold, braying, and materialistic — a perfect match for the equally abrasive Hector.

The director is Leon Ichaso, whose last film, “Piñero,” was about another tortured Puerto Rican artist whose name is unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans. Ichaso is fond of creamy, soft-focus photography, random uses of black-and-white, and stream-of-conscious editing. It worked a little better for “Piñero,” where the subject was a free-form poet whose work lent itself to a looser filmic representation. Lavoe’s life begs for a more straightforward approach, and Ichaso’s tomfoolery just feels exhausting, an attempt to infuse life into a moribund story.

C- (1 hr., 56 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, some strong sexuality, a lot of drug use.)