Movie review: ‘El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances’
In her feature debut, director Amy French gives a unique twist to a classic tale of a naïve entertainer’s rocketing stardom and crass exploitation. “El Superstar,” a loose-jointed mockumentary that is an amusing collaboration between French and her brother Spencer John French, draws upon their childhood in Beverly Hills, where their Mexican nanny had a large part in their upbringing. The siblings collaborated on the script and the songs, and Spencer stars in the title role.
Even though he had never before acted, his casting was surely inevitable. His sister would have had a hard time finding a pale, chunky balding redhead who speaks perfect Spanish, sings beautifully and can convincingly see himself as Mexican. Orphaned at three months, Juan Frances has been raised in his family’s spacious Beverly Hills home by his nanny (the always delightful Lupe Ontiveros); she and her gardener husband (Danny Trejo) have in fact adopted him. Obsessed with Jesus and the Virgin of Guadalupe, Juan works at odd jobs and hangs out with mariachis, singing ranchera songs that he has written.
After he is spotted at an East L.A. club by an ambitious Latina entertainer (Maria Esquivel) and a sleazy, avaricious promoter (David Franco), Juan becomes an overnight star and is quickly subjected to a makeover and a barrage of publicity and promotion. Ever the innocent, he performs with Esquivel garish numbers that tastelessly mix sex and religion.
“El Superstar” certainly could be more focused and sharper edged. It may be a minor film, but it does offer infectious pleasures in the endearing French and in its off-the-wall humor. It is not really a satire but rather a gentle morality play in which Juan identifies with Jesus and at last has a chance to discover his true self.
“El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances.” Unrated. In English and Spanish with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes. At the Monica 4-Plex, Santa Monica.
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