Criticism and controversy have trailed Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony in recent days as they made their way across country to attend advance screenings for their new movie, “El Cantante,” about the rise and fall of one of salsa’s most inventive vocalists, Hector Lavoe. But in the festive atmosphere following the Hollywood premiere this week at the Directors Guild of America Theatre on Sunset Boulevard, they were in no mood to concede to their detractors.
Lopez fired back in a tone that echoed the feisty character she plays in the film, Puchi Perez, wife of the late Lavoe, played by Marc Anthony. Seated next to her husband as they greeted well-wishers, Lopez challenged the critics: “I don’t know what movie they want to see, because this is the truth.”
It’s been a rough ride for the New York power couple, who have worked for almost six years to make the movie, the maiden effort from Lopez’s Nuyorican Productions. The film, which opened Friday, is getting panned by critics and blasted by big-name salsa stars, including some who actually worked on the project.
The attacks have been merciless, especially on the Internet, where the filmmakers have been accused of usurping barrio culture and exploiting Lavoe’s memory. J.Lo and Anthony don’t know anything about salsa, grouses one caustic critic from a Yahoo Latin jazz discussion group. They grew up in New York singing in English and turned to Latin music only to make money, the poster grumbles bitterly.
After the film’s premiere in Puerto Rico, salsa singer Ismael Miranda, a Lavoe contemporary who plays his father in “El Cantante,” publicly condemned the film for focusing too much on the tragic artist’s drug abuse, which eventually led to his death from AIDS complications. Miranda was joined in his critique by singer Domingo Quiñónez, who also has a bit part in the movie, and Cheo Feliciano, a revered vocalist and member (along with Miranda and Lavoe) of the Fania All-Stars, the ‘70s’ super-group that helped launch the salsa boom.
But the worst was yet to come.
It turned up Wednesday on that Yahoo forum in the form of a post from none other than Willie Colón, the bandleader who was Lavoe’s partner and producer for two decades. Even though Colón had been hired as a consultant on the film, he now says he’s disappointed with the results.
“The creators of El Cantante missed an opportunity to do something of relevance for our community,” Colón wrote. “The real story was about Hector fighting the obstacles of a nonsupportive industry that took advantage of entertainers with his charisma and talent. Instead they did another movie about two Puerto Rican junkies. . . .
“It’s difficult to comprehend how two individuals who are in the music business like Marc and Jennifer are not aware of the damage and the consequences of promoting only the negative side of our Latin music culture.”
I caught up later with the bandleader, who was on tour in Europe. Via e-mail, I asked him what he would want the world to know about Lavoe that the movie doesn’t convey.
His sense of humor, Colón said, his agile mind, his sex appeal, his ability to communicate effortlessly with audiences, his loyalty and fearlessness in standing up for what he believed was right.
“I would show why he became so beloved among his fans,” said Colón. “This way, when he does fall, the movie viewer will understand him better and empathize with his character.”
True, the movie fails to explore the creative process or try to explain Lavoe’s popularity. It’s primarily a love story, through the eyes of Lavoe’s late widow, who helped generate the original script and wanted Lopez to play her onscreen.
And that’s part of the problem -- two dominant women taking center stage in a man’s world. After all, salsa is a macho business, and the tough-talking, coke-snorting Perez was reviled when she was alive as a gold-digger who exploited Lavoe during their 20-year relationship and then abandoned him in his dire final days.
Now the Bronx-born Lopez is feeling the blow-back from those who resent her for turning a movie about a cultural icon into “The Puchi and Hector Story,” another Hollywood distortion.
“I believe that Puchi actually caused Hector’s downfall,” Colón said. “I never understood why he put up with such a negative, homely, vulgar person. The biggest crime is the canonization of Puchi so that Jennifer can play her.”
The controversy seemed distant from the industry crowd celebrating after the Hollywood premiere. Some danced in the Grand Lobby as a DJ played Lavoe’s original music and wandering waiters served rum drinks called Blue Lavoes.
The party itself was a throwback to salsa’s heyday, when the music was the cool thing in celebrity circles. For all the film’s faults, it focuses renewed popular attention on a cultural phenomenon that was in danger of being forgotten. Ironically, those critical salsa stars in Puerto Rico spoke at a news conference announcing a new tour in tribute to Lavoe, something that probably would not be happening if not for the movie they were knocking.
“I think it’s good for the business,” said salsa pianist Larry Harlow, another member of the Fania All-Stars. “It’ll create a little stir in the Latin music scene, and believe me, New York really needs it. Anything we do about Latin music is good for Latin music.”
Film prompts new Lavoe releases
New CD compilations of Lavoe’s work have been released to coincide with the opening of “El Cantante.” Here are some recommendations reflecting the best of Lavoe’s work. They are available at Amazon.com or Descarga.com, unless otherwise noted.
“La Voz” (Fania Records) -- A 27-song, two-CD retrospective featuring studio hits and live recordings, including the exuberant rendition of his signature “Mi Gente” recorded live with the Fania All-Stars. It is part of the series of remastered Fania recordings from eMusica.
“El Cantante: The Originals” -- An introductory collection released in two versions: A “special edition” available only at Wal-Mart with a budget price and only nine songs, and a 14-song digipack edition featuring an interesting new Louie Vega remix of “Mi Gente.”
""Para Siempre” -- This limited edition DVD contains 25 tracks plus the full 50-minute Spanish-language documentary that aired on “E! Historias Verdaderas,” the Latino version of “E! True Hollywood Story,” available at www.miritmodirecto.com. Not the best audio, but fans can also watch the documentary and Lavoe videos free on YouTube.
Gurza covers Latino music, arts and culture. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with comments, events and ideas for this weekly feature.