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'El Cantante' Moves to DVD

6 Oct, 2007 By: Angelique Flores

Leon Ichaso

A tight budget, deep criticism and multiple circulating versions of the film could have been enough to sink El Cantante.

But director Leon Ichaso and his crew rose to the occasion with the biopic on salsa legend Hector Lavoe. And now the film is coming to DVD ($27.95) Oct. 30 from New Line Home Entertainment.

“A lot of people think this is a big Hollywood movie,” Ichaso said. “The budget of this movie is like lunch money for a Hollywood project.”

He shot the independent film — a project produced by Jennifer Lopez, among others — in 33 days, and it drew $7.5 million at the box office. While the tight budget was limiting for the filmmakers, Ichaso said keeping it a small indie film helped them “do it right.”

“[Major] studios would have turned it into Bambi,” he said.

And the life of Lavoe was far from sweet. The singer (Marc Anthony) came to New York from Puerto Rico. He and the other musicians on the Fania label rose to the top of the salsa music scene during the 1970s.

“I knew Hector Lavoe. I knew all of them [in the Fania scene],” Ichaso said. “It was a revolutionary time for Latinos. We were suddenly filling up Madison Square Garden.”

But not everything was happy and peaceful. Lavoe and his wife, Puchi (Jennifer Lopez), had a serious drug addiction, which the film did not sugarcoat.

“He was a victim of a business,” Ichaso said. “He was a victim of fame. He didn't want it. And he was a victim of displacement, which causes a lot of pain in people from others countries.”

Being part of the music scene at the time, Ichaso knows what he's talking about.

“I lived it. I was there in Manhattan when it happened,” said Ichaso, who directed another film about a salsa star dealing with the flipside of success with Crossover Dreams (1985), starring Ruben Blades (on DVD from New Yorker Video).

Still, El Cantante drew controversy for that depiction of pain that Lavoe underwent, as well as for the story being told through the eyes of Puchi, who many disliked, and whose role became a large one in the film.

“I was not surprised because Latinos are in constant denial of the fear that we have a problem; we can never have a problem,” Ichaso said. “Hector was a wonderful singer and a charismatic performer, but his immense drug addiction was at the same level of his talent. Everybody knew that, yet everybody denied that, which makes for dialogue — and the movie becomes attacked.”

As for Puchi's narration of Hector's life in the film, Ichaso said it's a common storytelling device and a natural way to compress 20 years into the length of a movie.

“It's a Jennifer Lopez movie,” he said, defending critics' condemnation of Lopez' plentiful screen time. “There are unfair accusations of vanity. She's an actress; she's not Mother Theresa. It's been done many, many times.”

On top of criticism from salsa musicians and critics, five versions of the movie, which were different from the final theatrical cut, circulated as a result of copies that leaked during film festival screenings.

Still, Ichaso wasn't without support from other salsa stars, such as Victor Manuelle, Ismael Miranda and Obie Bermudez, among others, who had small parts in the film. The film's star Anthony also idolized Lavoe and met him before Lavoe died, Ichaso said.

“Who's that ugly chick?” Lavoe said upon meeting Anthony years ago, when the young salsa singer had long hair, the director said.

Despite the film's detractors, Ichaso couldn't be happier with the outcome.

“What's there to be unhappy about?” he said. “It's resuscitating the sound and everything. Most people are very happy that this movie was made. Many years from now, this is something that you can refer to. Who was Hector [Lavoe], Ruben [Blades], Willie [Colon], Fania? It's the closest thing we have [to an answer].”

With the upcoming DVD, the medium is sure to preserve Ichaso's film.

“DVD is forever,” he said. “And with the new systems, 5.1 sound, you control it. It's your event … and it's a good Christmas gift.”

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