Hector Perez’s father warns him that leaving Puerto Rico will cause him to lose his family. Nonetheless, the young musician forsakes his native land for the Bronx. Turns out, he’s in the right place at the right time. And his “one-in-a-million” voice puts him on the cutting edge of a new movement in Latin music: salsa.
Ditching his plain Puerto Rican surname for a more romantic one—Lavoe—Hector becomes “the people’s artist,” gaining the love of thousands, including sassy, say-it-like-it-is New Yorker Nilda “Puchi” Roman.
El Cantante (translation: “The Singer”) is a fiction-based-on-fact film that follows Lavoe’s rise and fall as a singer and as a man. It revolves around an interview supposedly given by Puchi in 2002. The moral of the story, she says, is this: “The more he grew as an artist, the deeper he sank as a person.”
Puchi recounts the sordid tale, beginning in 1963 with Hector’s journey to the U.S. and their meeting shortly thereafter. Almost immediately, she introduces him to marijuana. Pot leads to heroin and heroin to cocaine. Two years, one baby and a lot of drinking, smoking and drugs later, Hector and Puchi marry. Their son, Tito, grows up in the middle of Dad’s skyrocket ride to fame—and also amidst his parents’ perpetual drunkenness, drugged stupor and domestic violence.
In a roundabout way, El Cantante highlights the importance of loving, faithful, involved husbands and fathers. Though Hector never manages to be either of those things, it’s clear to the audience that he should—that his success in these areas would make all the difference in the world to his wife and son, not to mention to his own mental health.
In the same warped way, Puchi’s staying with Hector for more than 20 years is to be seen as a good thing (if one can forget the intermittent infidelity on his part and hers). Likewise, there’s a backward lesson about keeping promises and not making excuses. Hector’s failure on both accounts results in the breakup of his original musical partnership with Willie Colon.
Hector and Puchi are supposed to get married in a church, but because of his drunkenness, they hold the ceremony in his apartment instead. In one of his attempts to beat the demons of drugs and alcohol, he receives a beaded necklace from a woman in a Catholic supply store. She tells him that the image of Santa Barbara will protect him against the “evil eye,” which she says can kill him. As he relapses into his old habits, he takes off the icon.
At Christmastime, Hector seems to be praying to Santa Claus for a toy train for Tito. He genuflects before going onstage. But the lyrics to one of his songs are translated in subtitles: “We must remember [that] there’s no eternity/Everything comes to an end.”
Puchi sarcastically describes her first sexual encounter with Hector, saying that it was “impressive.” A flashback—which includes sexual movements and noises—shows that it was actually a painful encounter in the back seat of an old car. Hector and Puchi’s premarital sexual relationship continues until she discovers she’s pregnant. Only then does he marry her, choosing her over the other woman who is pregnant with his child at the same time.
Moviegoers are exposed to several other sexual encounters between Hector and Puchi, including one in which she climbs on top of him and unzips his pants. This particular rendezvous is interrupted by his desire for—and her aversion to—doing drugs and having sex at the same time. In another scene, they are naked in bed, and audiences see head-and-shoulders shots of them kissing and rolling around. Clothed, Hector climbs into a bubble bath with Puchi.
Both Hector and Puchi admit to having sex with other partners. And when Puchi arrives at Hector’s apartment for their wedding, she has to kick out a stripper who’s left over from the previous night’s bachelor party. Once, Hector tells Puchi that he wants her to have sex with another woman to turn him on. She replies that she’ll only comply if he has sex with another man first.
Hector uses sexual innuendo in a conversation with a friend. A musician fondles a woman who’s wearing only a bra and panties. Girls—in person and on TV—dance in skimpy outfits. In a montage of concert footage, girls and guys lick each other and a guy unzips a girl’s dress with his teeth.
Hector and Puchi’s relationship contains several instances of domestic violence, including him grabbing her by the arms and shoving her around. He also grabs her by the neck as if to choke her. A bouncer in a club tries to restrain Puchi when she flies at her husband in a rage. Hector and Puchi often exchange mean and foul insults during their fights.
[Spoiler Warning] Audiences learn that Tito has been accidentally shot and killed by his best friend. The shooting isn’t shown—we only see the boy stealing the gun from his parents’ home, and then we see the funeral. Hector, having lost all hope, tries to end his life by jumping from a balcony. He survives, and is briefly shown bleeding on a hospital gurney.
Two f-words in the first three sentences are an accurate indicator of El Cantante‘s nature. And by the time the last sentence slips into silence, there’s been nearly 80 f-words, along with at least a dozen s-words. Milder profanities are also common, both in English and Spanish. God’s name is misused a handful of times.
Set in a time when cigarettes were staples of the social scene, El Cantante hardly contains a close-up facial shot not obscured by rising curls of smoke. And alcohol is nearly as omnipresent. Musicians are often shown with beer bottles in hand. Hector even asks the priest at his wedding, “Father, there’s no more beer left? You sure?”
But far more than cigarettes and alcohol, it’s the drugs that define El Cantante—the man and the movie. After his first encounter with marijuana, Hector is so sick that he says he never wants to touch the stuff again. That doesn’t last long. Joints become commonplace in his life, as they already are in Puchi’s. Once, he appears in a Santa Claus suit, smoking a joint.
His subsequent introduction to heroin is played with an understated weightiness that forebodes how the stuff will rock his world. He and his musician friends are repeatedly shown with needles stuck in their forearms. Then they’re on to cocaine, which several characters are shown snorting and licking. Toward the end of the film, Lavoe observes that neither he nor Puchi has been straight (sober) for more than three hours a day in the last 20 years. Though he does several stints in rehab, none of them seem to make a serious difference in his life.
[Spoiler Warning] Hector is diagnosed with (and eventually dies from) AIDS as a result of his drug use.
Throughout their marriage, Puchi’s desperate pleas for Hector to be a devoted husband and attentive father fall on deaf ears as he fails—in fact, hardly tries—to shake his addictions and lead his family. His downward spiral continues into depression, disease and even a suicide attempt. In the end, Hector’s lost not just his father, but his son, and effectively his wife as well. Audiences are left with the profound—and unresolved—contrast between Lavoe’s groundbreaking music career and the debauchery and desolation of his personal life.
As Puchi tells her tainted love story, viewers catch several glimpses of how broken she must be to accept the circumstances of her life with Hector. She says their love was “realistic.” She tries to remember the happy times and to paint him as humorous or as a victim. In reality, it’s all smoke and mirrors (marijuana smoke and coke mirrors, that is).
Artistically, the film is convincing. Black-and-white interview shots mix with full-color flashbacks and rapid-fire concert montages. Together, they paint believable pictures, both of the intoxicating success of Lavoe’s music and the unmitigated disaster of the rest of his life. The question is, what are we supposed to be convinced of?
Hector Lavoe made a lasting impression on the world of Latin music. That’s unquestionable. But offstage, everything fell apart. There’s no feel-good message about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps here. Not even a deathbed repentance. The only solace left to Puchi—and to her audience—is a sad attempt to “think of the happy times,” few and far-between though they were.