By Carla Meyer
"Overproduced" usually applies to albums, not movies. But given that "El Cantante" involves a lot of music, let's use it anyway, as an umbrella term for a film that is, more specifically, over-directed, over-edited and over-Lopezed.
Lopez stars as Puchi Lavoe, wife of late salsa pioneer Hector Lavoe, played by Lopez's real-life spouse, Marc Anthony. The film ostensibly follows the singer's rise and fall, but it is Puchi telling, and Lopez dominating, the story. "El Cantante" never sheds enough light on the man himself.
This despite Anthony's considerable screen presence. The camera loves the angles of his face, and he oozes charisma in performance scenes. When he talks, you want to listen, but his character doesn't say much of substance.
Talking-head scenes of Puchi, based on interviews she gave before her own death in 2002, frame the film. A Puerto Rican American raised in New York, Puchi recalls first meeting Hector just after his arrival from Puerto Rico in the 1960s. Compared with Hector, so unaccustomed to drinking and drugs that he vomits during their first significant encounter, Puchi has been around the block. He soon catches up to her and then some.
Too soon, actually, even for a musical-biopic subgenre in which excess is expected. This kid who couldn't handle his booze decides to start shooting up. And the guy who is so wowed by his new girlfriend starts cheating on her. The film also fails to fully explore Lavoe's influential collaboration with bandleader Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and their music's unifying effect on "Nuyorican" audiences.
The visuals are choppier than the story. Director Leon Ichaso ("Pinero") rarely lets a moment settle. He zooms in, layers image upon image or cuts away just when the audience wants to see a scene through.
The black and white "documentary" scenes of Puchi feature Lopez in makeup that ages her about six months instead of 20 years. But when she's dressed to the nines in 1970s disco fashions - during the period after Hector makes it big - Lopez looks fabulous. She also lends her character admirable moxie at times.
But she frequently comes off as abrasive, and her character is a constant presence in the film but also an inconsistent one. At times, Puchi indulges Hector's drug use and lifestyle - doing her share of cocaine, for instance - and at other times demands that he stop. Too attentive at moments, she neglects him at one of his greatest times of need.
For what it's worth, Lopez and Anthony show plenty of chemistry, which hasn't been true of every married couple to grace the screen. But a would-be frisky scene focused on Lopez's storied booty seems misplaced. At this point in her career, when she's trying to boost her credibility as an actress, viewers don't need a reminder that her greatest success might be behind her.
As long as Anthony sings, "El Cantante" holds our interest. The famed salsa singer adjusts his own moves and style to fit those of Lavoe, a fellow tenor known for his exquisite phrasing. Though no artist can match another, Anthony impresses in performing numbers that marry poignant lyrics and celebratory horns.
Perhaps "El Cantante" will inspire viewers to seek out recordings by Lavoe, who died in 1993 after battles with AIDS and addiction. They probably explain his legendary status much better than the film does.
Cast: Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, John Ortiz and Manny Perez
Director: Leon Ichaso
Writers: Ichaso, Todd Anthony Bello and David Darmstaedter
Running time: 116 minutes
Rated R (language, drug use, sexuality)