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Dangerous grooves

Times Staff Writer

MARC ANTHONY had plenty of warning about the dangers of starring opposite his wife, Jennifer Lopez, in the story of a troubled celebrity couple from salsa’s golden era. Fellow actors cautioned him that the marital conflicts in the script were bound to creep into his own relationship as some sort of evil projection on his marriage.

“Everybody said the same thing: ‘Oh, working with your wife is going to be challenging,’ ” he recalls. “ ‘It’s a rough script, man, and you’re going to have to go to these [tormented] places.’ ”

Marc Anthony wasn’t yet married to Lopez when he agreed to star as the late Hector Lavoe, the beloved but bedeviled salsa singer in “El Cantante” (The Singer), a Picturehouse release that opens Friday. His future wife would not just be his costar as the sharp-tongued Puchi, Lavoe’s codependent spouse -- Lopez would also be his boss, since she was producing the movie as the maiden project of her company, Nuyorican Productions. The warnings gave him second thoughts about the deal. “Man, I thought I had signed a death sentence,” he recalled.

But the singer plunged into the role with passion, bearing an uncanny resemblance on screen to the wiry Puerto Rican icon he calls his idol. “El Cantante” shows Lavoe’s rise to fame as part of New York’s salsa boom of the ‘60s and ‘70s and his almost simultaneous self-destruction through drug abuse and paralyzing self-doubt. Lavoe’s talent and bravado made him an instant folk hero for the era’s socially conscious Latin American youth. Yet his human failings and miserable luck made him a tragic figure who lost his mother as a boy, met with heartless rejection from his father as an adult, became hooked on heroin, buried a teenage son killed in a gun accident, contracted AIDS, tried to commit suicide and met an early death at age 46.

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This story is told in flashbacks by a world-worn but still feisty Puchi, who is being interviewed after Lavoe’s death. Played with convincing New York attitude by Lopez, Puchi recounts her husband’s infidelities, his reputation for showing up late (if at all) to concerts, her heroic efforts to rescue him from scary shooting galleries and her blind enabling by sharing his drug habits.

A rough script indeed. How could Marc Anthony and Lopez inhabit such dark characters during shooting in New York and not take some of that turmoil back to their pastoral Long Island estate at night?

“The exact opposite is true,” Marc Anthony counters, his voice rising. “On the drive home after a fight scene, we’d say, ‘Oh, my God, that was crazy. Babe, we have nothing to worry about.’ It shed light on how bad it could be, I guess, and we just felt so normal. We were like, ‘Wow, thank God that’s not our life,’ and we ended up just celebrating ours.”

“El Cantante” is the first movie to feature Marc Anthony and Lopez, both 38, as costars. It took them almost six years to make it, struggling against Hollywood’s historic distortion of Latino themes and the lingering ghost of “Gigli,” the 2003 box-office bomb that featured Lopez with her previous cohabiting costar, Ben Affleck.

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Supporters are convinced that the actress redeems herself with her dramatic turn as Nilda “Puchi” Roman, in a script by director Leon Ichaso, Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter. Lavoe’s widow had expressed a desire to be played by Lopez in the film, but she died in 2002 without meeting the actress.

Although Lopez has enjoyed marquee billing in several films, this is the first leading role for her husband, one of the top-selling Latin singers of all time. The starring role signals his intention to move more into acting, at a time when the music industry is in a slump and salsa is a pale shadow of what it was in his ‘90s heyday.

His advantage is that he’s married to his acting coach. (The couple will sing on tour this fall.) In preparing to play Lavoe, he relied on his wife’s experience in her first major movie role in “Selena,” Gregory Nava’s 1997 biopic of the slain Tejano singing star.

“Jennifer helped me a lot with that,” says Marc Anthony, who had performed with the real Selena. “She studied [the character] to nauseum. I mean, clips, interviews, songs, nuances, everything. And then, she said, ‘Forget about it. Let it seep into your performance; don’t make it your performance.’ I thought that was a very interesting paradigm.”

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“El Cantante” captures the intoxicating spirit of the salsa explosion, which was catching fire around the time Marc Anthony and Lopez were born in New York. As Nuyoricans, they share the cultural roots of Lavoe, born Hector Juan Perez, who was still a teenager in the early ‘60s when he moved to the mainland against his father’s wishes. He brought with him a pride in Puerto Rico’s jibaro, or country, music and a quick-witted command of Spanish, which would become a trademark of his vocal improvisations.

Lavoe, who co-wrote many of his hits with bandleader Willie Colon, embodied the sound nicknamed salsa that bristled with the slang, the lore and the characters of the street. The film, directed by the Cuban-born Ichaso, becomes a tribute to a musical movement that reflected the rising aspirations of Latinos in the U.S., a cultural outpouring whose intensity and influence have not been duplicated since.

“It was a very fertile, creative time [that is] being faded out by mediocrity, so it was important to document it as something you can watch forever, " says Ichaso, who explored the arts of the era in 2001’s “Pinero” starring Benjamin Bratt and 1985’s “Crossover Dreams” with Ruben Blades.

The film’s title is taken from a tune that became Lavoe’s signature song and was written by Blades, the Panamanian salsa star who had replaced Lavoe as Colon’s lead singer after the bandleader decided he could no longer work with his first partner. But contrary to the film’s production notes, Blades did not write the song for Lavoe.

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With a sweet yet aching melody, “El Cantante” talks of a singer whose public success masks his private pain. Blades had already written the number when he was approached for help by Colon, who was producing Lavoe’s third solo album.

Lavoe was depressed because his record sales had dropped, Blades recalls. Colon -- the real musical mastermind behind Lavoe’s success, who gets short shrift in the film -- needed a surefire hit to help revive the singer’s career and sagging spirit. Blades at first balked at giving up the song, according to Paula Campbell, his former girlfriend (and inspiration for the Blades hit “Paula C”) who recently unearthed the composer’s handwritten lyrics for “El Cantante.” Though he doesn’t remember hesitating, Blades eventually let go of the song, which went on to became a smash for Lavoe from his 1978 album “Comedia.”

“People have asked me since if I ever regretted giving him that song,” Blades explains. “The answer: never. The song fit his reality more than mine at the time. I couldn’t have possibly produced the authenticity Hector injected in it.”

Though Marc Anthony’s life has been more charmed than cursed, the song fits him too, in some ways. “He’s got the sorrow in the eyes,” Ichaso says of the actor.

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Identifying with the part

THE theme of an artist’s public glory and secret sorrows touched Marc Anthony so deeply that he broke down and cried in the studio while recording the tune for the film, the director recalls.

“I don’t share in the tragedy, but I have shared in the loneliness,” Marc Anthony explains. “I have shared in the false sense of acceptance. I have shared in feeling inadequate, at some point or other in my life.... Hector used to sit and cry in Puchi’s lap. He would cry because he hated his voice and he didn’t know why people loved him so much. He felt like a fraud.”

There are still times when Marc Anthony can’t believe his own success. He doesn’t keep his own recordings at home, he says, and he fills his leisure time with activities that take him away from the music business. He paints, takes photos and pilots planes and helicopters.

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When it’s time to go back on tour, he suddenly remembers: He is el cantante. The reality hits him at least once during every concert. “It’s my entrance and all the lights are on in the stadium,” he says. “There’s 60,000 people and their arms are up in the air and they’re screaming and they’re beautiful. I’m standing up there and I’m like, ‘Oh ... my ... God! When did this happen? Just the other day I was this 18-year-old dreamer, man.’ ”

He never dreamed of becoming a salsa singer. Christened Marco Antonio Muniz after a famous Mexican crooner, he anglicized his name when he started to make his mark as a songwriter and session vocalist in New York’s underground house music scene. He worked at the time with the DJ and freestyle producer Little Louie Vega, who happened to be Lavoe’s nephew.

Switching to salsa, a style he considered “so uncool,” was a result of “sheer fate,” he recalls. One day while stuck in a traffic jam, he heard on the radio a beautiful ballad titled “Hasta Que Te Conoci” (Until I Met You), a hit by Mexico’s top pop songwriter Juan Gabriel. He was so moved by the sorrowful song that he got out of the car, called his manager and insisted he had to record it.

In the studio with pianist-producer Sergio George, he experimented with a version of the song that would redefine and revitalize salsa in the ‘90s. It became a smash from his debut salsa album, “Otra Nota” (Another Note), released in 1993, the year Lavoe died.

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Salsa purists have never forgiven him and George, who arranged and produced music for the Lavoe film, for helping to popularize what they considered soft salsa, as opposed to the salsa dura of the 1970s. The generic romantic themes and processed percussion of the new wave seemed to lack the very element that had made Lavoe’s music so powerful -- that barrio pulse.

The ‘70s salsa explosion, led by Fania Records, yielded a whole crop of star vocalists, including Ismael Miranda, who plays Lavoe’s middle-aged father in the film. But by the end of that decade, the music had been so commercialized that it started sounding formulaic and never recovered its energy and sense of purpose.

Ichaso says he hopes “El Cantante” will spark a salsa revival. But some salsa skeptics seem set to reject the new film before even seeing it. They question whether a Hollywood power couple can make an authentic version of a phenomenon considered “Our Latin Thing,” to borrow the title of Leon Gast’s vibrant 1972 salsa documentary focusing on the Fania All Stars and the working-class culture that spawned them.

The new film does, in some cases, fictionalize the facts. Bandleader Johnny Pacheco, the co-founder of Fania Records, did not coin the term salsa, for example. And Lavoe spoke English with an accent, not like a native New Yorker. When an early version of “El Cantante” screened last year at the Toronto Film Festival, some critics panned it for lack of character development and an unwieldy script. “A virtual template of every imaginable cliche of the musical biopic,” scoffed Variety.

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That didn’t stop film executive Bob Berney from picking up “El Cantante” for Picturehouse, the company he heads for HBO Films and New Line Cinema.

“I violently disagreed with those reviews,” says Berney, who has had success with hard-to-market independent films such as “Y Tu Mama Tambien” and “Pan’s Labyrinth.” “I believe they misunderstood the film.” But he also acknowledges that the movie was rushed into the festival and has changed substantially since then, partly at Berney’s direction. The finished version has less sad story, much more music.

“El Cantante,” which was made for about $15 million, is opening nationally in 800 theaters, Berney says, counting on the star power of its leading couple to draw initial crowds and word of mouth to keep them coming.

Salsa fans are bound to be abuzz about the quality of the music. The soundtrack, released Tuesday, features some of the artists who played with Lavoe, such as Milton Cardona and Jose Mangual Jr. Rather than impersonating Lavoe’s nasally tones, Marc Anthony says he tried to capture his swing and his deceptively simple timing.

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“I thought that the interpretation of his songs was going to be a breeze, but it blindsided me,” he says. “Look, I was raised with his music. I know the songs. I thought, ‘How hard can this be?’ And so I went for it, but oh, my God, I got this hot flash when I realized how difficult it actually was. His phrasing was so unique. He would sing in places that were just not natural, and I challenge anybody to dissect his phrasing and not call it genius.”

One of the musical high points of the film is Marc Anthony’s version of “Aguanile,” the Lavoe-Colon tune that’s driven by ferocious rhythms and a cathartic spiritual theme mixing allusions to Christianity and Santeria. Filmed as a surreal concert sequence while a Santero ritual cleanses Lavoe of his demons, it’s a triumphant moment in the movie and one of the most gripping expressions of true salsa on film.

“When you make art, there are so many variables,” the singer says. “So many people have to come together for the right reasons so that you can put your head on your pillow at the end of a day and feel great about the work. This is truly one of those privileged moments in my life. I don’t care how much money the movie makes. I really don’t. I’m simply going to tell my kids 20 years from now that I was the luckiest man on the planet to have been able to live an experience like this.”

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agustin.gurza@latimes.com


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