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A few years back, some uncreative journalists announced a new "Latin explosion" was sweeping the American music scene. That so-called movement turned out to be combustible. But three decades earlier, a true Latin explosion had hit the nation: New York's salsa renaissance of the Seventies, counting among its leaders the great trombonist Willie Colón and his orchestra's featured singer, Héctor Lavoe.
The reverberations of their work and the rest of the output of their legendary label, Fania, are still felt in music today. But Lavoe's influence, specifically, has been largely overlooked. El Cantante, the new Lavoe biopic starring Marc Anthony and his wife, Jennifer Lopez, intends to change that.
"It's hard getting independent films made, [especially about] somebody that nobody knows," explains Lopez, sitting in a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills. "In the Latin community, he's so well known, it's like, 'What do you mean, you don't know who Héctor Lavoe is?' For everybody else, it was more or less, 'Enh, okay.'" Lopez produced the movie herself via her Nuyorican Productions company; ultimately the financiers backed not the subject matter but the passion she and Anthony brought to the project.
Five and a half years after Lavoe's former road manager, David Maldonado, first handed Lopez the script, the actress/musician-turned-producer finally got the chance to make the movie with her first choice for the lead, Anthony. She would star alongside her real-life husband as Lavoe's equally troubled wife, Puchi. Director Leon Ichaso, who developed the script for a year before production began, praises their devotion to Lavoe's tragic story of drug addiction and loss. He insists he agreed to the helm El Cantante only because "they wouldn't compromise the story of Héctor Lavoe. They didn't want to whitewash it or turn it into a kind of Taco Bell Latino story."
Say what you will about Lopez — sure, her career has been smeared with tabloid gossip that has marred her credibility — but at the end of the day, it turns out Lavoe had no better champion in all of Hollywood. Interestingly enough, though, that champion stumbled upon her muse without realizing how much of her life had already been influenced by him.
"It's funny," she says, "just like with the movie Selena, I knew the music and I knew about her, but I didn't know about her. I wasn't like following following her. It was the same thing with Héctor. I grew up with the music. 'Oh, I know this song. He did that song?' It was just that kind of thing; he was like the soundtrack to your life."
Anthony, who bears a startling resemblance to Lavoe, grew up in New York City, like Lopez, listening to the emotional vocalist. His turn as the fellow singer was so uncanny that Lavoe's family members would burst into tears and ask to hold Anthony. Many hadn't had a chance to properly say goodbye to Lavoe before the singer died of AIDS complications in 1993.
"I didn't realize the impact [he had on me] until the research," admits Anthony, now the top-selling salsa artist of all time. His words roll out at practically a drawl compared to Lopez's energetic answers. "You encounter these artists who just become a part of your life.... When I thought about it, the one constant [in mine] was Héctor Lavoe. I'm sure [his music] seeped into my style; how could it not?"
Anthony is still haunted and inspired by the first time he met Lavoe, in 1989. "My partner at the time was [Héctor's] nephew, and he said, 'My uncle's here,'" Anthony recounts with a reverential tone. "So he was in this room, watching this TV; it was dark and stuff. I sat down and he didn't even look at me. I had this long hair too. The first thing he ever said to me, he looked over and said, 'Oh my God, it's the ugliest girl I've ever met.'
"I just wanted to crawl under the rug, until I found out he did that to everybody," he continues, grinning at the memory. "I ended up having dinner [with him that night] and I got to know him a little bit. I have a recording in my head of everything he said, and I reflect on that. It's why I want to do him justice."
Doing Lavoe justice was only one reason for the artist couple to bring his story to the big screen. Reminding people of and making a historical declaration about this oft-overlooked moment in music, and the unique forces that created it, were others. "While trying to get this movie made, I'd sometimes wonder, Why am I pushing this boulder uphill? It's crazy!" Lopez says, laughing. "Then I'd listen to the music or go back and watch the performances of the Fania All-Stars and watch Héctor just bring the house down, and I'd be like, This is why. It was an important time in musical history. At the end of the day, it was about the music [Héctor] left behind."