Distributed by Picturehouse, the film runs for 106 minutes and is rated R for language, sexuality and drug use.
Puchi (Jennifer Lopez) talks about her late husband, salsa legend Héctor Lavoe "El Cantante De Los Cantantes" ("The singer of all the singers") (Marc Anthony), during a 2002 interview. Héctor Pérez leaves Puerto Rico, even though his father persuades him not to go because if he does he'll lose a father. Héctor decides to go anyway against his father's will in an attempt to pursue his dreams. On his first night in the city he meets Eddie (Manny Pérez) and discovers the new sound of salsa flowing through the streets. He eventually becomes the lead singer in a salsa group performing in a bar. One night he is approached by salsa musician, Willie Colón(John Ortiz) and Johnny Pacheco. Johnny offers them a deal with Fania Records Company and Hector accepts. The company also suggests that he change his name to Héctor Lavoe. "Lavoe" meaning "the voice" in French. Héctor falls in love with Puchi, a girl who danced at the club where he performed. He confesses to her that his mother died when he was young, his brother was killed the night he came to New York and that he didn't have many people in his life. She tells him that they'll take care of each other. It is revealed that Héctor was cheating on Puchi with another girl named Carmen. Puchi reveals that Carmen and she were pregnant with a baby of his at the same time. But she is the only woman of his life because he chose her. They eventually get married and have a son named Tito. On a night of hard partying, Héctor catches Eddie doing drugs and does so too. This will be the start of his drug addiction. Through the years, after Héctor's consistent tardiness to gigs, Willie grows tired of Héctor's irresponsibility and decides to go solo. Héctor's drug and alcohol addiction continues to grow stronger and becomes very noticeable. Puchi is infuriated when she finds Tito eating alone and Héctor shooting up while the gas was on. She begs Héctor to quit the drugs and to turn his life around for their son and because he is always high and is missing out and she loves him. One night, Puchi wakes up to Héctor sitting with a gun staring into space, suicidally depressed. In fear she sends him to rehab. Puchi can't help feeling extremely guilty when Héctor's sister Priscilla blames all of Héctor's problems on her. She later takes him out and he is put on medication. A jealous Héctor calls Puchi a whore and frequently accuses her of having affairs with many different men. Héctor maintains sobriety and takes his family to Puerto Rico for vacation. When Héctor tries to reconcile with his father after leaving against his will, he rejects Héctor. This causes him more pain. He is diagnosed with HIV and advises Puchi to get tested as well. He maintains sobriety for a while but soon has a relapse and goes back to his old ways. Puchi and Héctor fight often and it usually ends with him leaving the house and then coming back and apologizing to her. Tito is killed when his friend accidentally shoots him while playing with the gun Héctor kept in the house. This scars Héctor for the rest of his life. In the interview, Puchi admits that Héctor was never the same after that, and he died along with their son. She says everyone expected too much from him. Héctor confesses to Willie that he loves Puchi and that he wishes he would've done things differently, but it's too late and nothing is the same anymore. Willie encourages him to perform at a gig in Puerto Rico. At the concert, there is less than half of the audience due to bad managing and advertising. Still, he decides to perform for the few people who still showed up while it starts raining. He just couldn't hold in all the pain anymore. The depression and guilt are too much for Héctor to handle and it drives him to attempt suicide by jumping out a window. He survives the fall and lives another 5 years. Puchi is seen in her new apartment, listening to a voice mail from Hector, wishing her a happy birthday and that he'll always be there and love her. She smiles and begins to dance while looking at a picture of her and Héctor on the wall. The movie ends with Héctor performing and the credits revealing that he died at the age of 46 of AIDS, from sharing needles. It is also, revealed that Puchi died shortly after this interview in 2002.Marc Anthony as Héctor Lavoe
Jennifer Lopez as Nilda Georgina "Puchi" Román
Federico Castelluccio as Jerry Masucci
Vincent Laresca as Ralph Mercado
Víctor Manuelle as Rubén Blades
John Ortiz as Willie Colón
El cantante, which has an MPAA rating of R, was first premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival which took place in September 2006. It was then released to over 542 cinemas on August 3, 2007. The film opened at No. 12 at the U.S. Box Office, grossing $3,202,035 during its opening weekend. It averaged around $6,000 per theater. The following week, it grossed $1,401,148 and fell to No. 16. It left the chart at No. 115 on the week of September 28, 2007, after grossing $1,465. El cantante grossed $7,556,712 domestically and $354,820 overseas, totaling $7.9 million.
Charlotte O'Sullivan of the Evening Standard said the "film did not go down well" at the Box Office, crediting its lack of commercial success to Lopez and Anthony "know nothing about salsa" and its "negative view of the Latino community by focusing on Lavoe’s drug use and death from Aids", which had sparked controversy. The film's DVD was released on October 30, 2007. It became a hit, ranking at No. 8 on the DVD/Home Rentals chart at Box Office Mojo, and had grossed $16.61 million in DVD sales as of December 23, 2007.
Following its Toronto International Film Festival premiere, El Cantante earned mostly negative reviews from critics and currently holds a 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes based on 106 reviews.
Robert Koehler of Variety felt that the biopic, which contained "many standard-issue biopic montage sequences", was only "geared for the bigscreen, but the fairly bland visual design will make pic more than suitable to be seen on the tube". Koehler was critical of both performances, feeling that while Lopez brought "plenty of ferocity" to her character, there wasn't "shape" or "power" to her "wrath", and labeled Anthony "the dullest of movie drug addicts".
A.O. Scott of The New York Times felt that Anthony as Lavoe was hidden behind "his high, delicate cheekbones and tinted glasses" but "Whenever Héctor takes the stage, however, Mr. Anthony unleashes his charisma, and shows that, whatever his limitations as an actor, he is a brilliant performer". Scott praised Lopez's performance, noting that it had "a lot of fight" with "a hard, skeptical edge" that made Puchi "a more interesting and plausible character than her husband". Ed Gonzalez of Slant Magazine gave the film and Anthony's performance a positive review, but was critical of Lopez, calling her performance "predictably self-conscious" but said her sequences "complements Puchi's own". Renee Schonfield of Common Sense Media gave El cantante a negative review, "brings the magic of salsa music to the screen; unfortunately, it also brings the audience another bleak story of a flameout singer bent on self-destruction".
Kevin Maher of The Times was negative, stating that the "soft-pedalled account of Lavoe's rise to fame and his drug-related downfall that has more in common with the biopic parody Walk Hard than anything as muddy as real life". Claudia Puig of USA Today said Anthony "gives a fine and impassioned performance" in a story that "relies on formula and clichés of the genre" which meant "we don't learn enough about what caused the Puerto Rican-born Lavoe's downward spiral into drug use, promiscuity and suicide attempts after he gained fame in New York City". Additionally, Puig criticized Lopez's airtime by stating "the film has far too much of her and not enough of Anthony".
Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian, in a review based primarily on Lopez, panned her performance and said "There is something entirely dead about Lopez's performance. No matter how superficially lively she makes it, she is always simply mouthing the lines". On the other hand, Charlotte O'Sullivan of the Evening Standard praised Lopez and her character, "Lopez deserves praise for pushing this project. The recently deceased Puchi (who helped generate the script and pushed for Lopez to play her) is not the kind of character you see on screen every day. She has not been whitewashed and neither, thank goodness, has her husband".
The film was criticized, and accused of "usurping barrio culture and exploiting Lavoe's memory", with salsa singer Ismael Miranda condemning it for "focusing too much on the tragic artist's drug abuse, which eventually led to his death from AIDS complications". Other celebrities who criticized the film were singer Domingo Quiñónez, and vocalist Cheo Feliciano. Willie Colón, Lavoe's long time friend and musical partner, was critical of the film. Although he had been hired as a consultant for El cantante, he was not pleased with the end result, stating:
"The creators of El Cantante missed an opportunity to do something of relevance for our community. 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".
Additionally, Colón blamed Lopez and Anthony:
"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".
And while the film was predominantly a love story, Colón also noted that in real life, he believed Puchi caused Lavoe's drug problems, but was canonized "so that Jennifer can play her". David L. Coddon of U-T San Diego said following the film's release, "Latino pop culture's highest-profile couple is taking heat from salsa purists who complain that the film, about salsa legend Hector Lavoe, is a distortion, even an exploitation", while also stating Lopez is "one of the most famous women in the world, and there's nothing her critics can do to change that".
NPR's Felix Contreras weighed in on the criticism, pointing out that " any time you have a portrayal of an artist where they reflect a history of drug abuse or alcohol abuse" there would always be criticism, and "in this case, some folks are arguing that the film was focusing on that drug abuse, and not necessarily on what he generated or what he contributed to the music". When commenting on the film, Lopez felt her performance should have earned an Oscar nomination and blamed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for overlooking both the film and her performance.