MICHEL MARTIN, host:
He was known as El Cantante. We're talking about singer Hector Lavoe, whose innovative style helped define salsa music during the 1970s in New York. His charisma and musicianship gained him legions of devoted fans, among them performers Marc Anthony and Jennifer Lopez.
They star in a new film about Lavoe's life. But that film, titled, "El Cantante," has been criticized by some for focusing too much on Lavoe's drug use.
Here to talk more to us about this is Felix Contreras. He's a producer on the NPR's arts desk, and he joins us here in the studio. Felix, welcome to the program.
FELIX CONTRERAS: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: Now, there's some controversy about the way the film portrays Lavoe. In fact, as I understand it, that Jennifer Lopez is also the producer of the film and also stars in it as Lavoe's wife. But what's the controversy about?
CONTRERAS: I think any time you have a portrayal of an artist where they reflect a history of drug abuse or alcohol abuse, there's always going to be a question or criticism about how that is portrayed. And I think 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.
MARTIN: Now, wait, wait. Hold up. Because "Ray," the movie "Ray," the biopic about Ray Charles' life, the man had a heroin problem. It was a prominent part of the film. I don't remember people complaining about that.
CONTRERAS: I completely agree. I mean, I think that going back to "Ray" or "Walk the Line" even the same year, going back to "Bird" about Charlie Parker, even "Round Midnight," there's a long history of people, artists, being portrayed with their drug abuse. And I think that some of the controversy coming out of this - because there are so few films made about Latinos, about Latinos in the spotlight, that some folks are saying, you know, maybe you didn't need to concentrate on that so much, you know?
And then there's another aspect of it were some musicians - part of a listserv that I'm part of - musicians who actually played with them for a number of years are saying some of that stuff is inaccurate. You know, some of the creative license that the producers took and the screenwriters took - they're complaining about that, too. But that's the trouble with biopics.
MARTIN: Sure. Let's play a clip from the movie, "El Cantante." Here is Hector Lavoe, played by Marc Anthony, and in this clip, he's negotiating with his record executive. Let's hear a little bit.
(Soundbite of movie, "El Cantante")
Unidentified Man: We are a young company, but, you know, we're looking to do bigger and better things. You know, more mainstream things, you know? The black musicians have Motown, Stax Records. Now, the Latin musicians are going to have their own label: Fania Records.
Mr. MARC ANTHONY (Singer, Actor): (as Hector Lavoe) Fania Records. I buy your records, man.
Unidentified Man: Then you know what you're getting into. You know, Hector, do you have a lawyer?
Mr. ANTHONY: (as Hector Lavoe) Yeah. We have a, we have a good lawyer.
Unidentified Man: Oh, okay, good.
Mr. ANTHONY: (as Hector Lavoe) He's very good. But you're an honest guy, so I didn't bring him, you know?
MARTIN: Tell me about Fania Records. Is that accurate, that, that was the point of the label, to give Latin artists a platform?
CONTRERAS: That's what it became. It started in 1964 with bandleader Johnny Pacheco and an entertainment lawyer who ventured into the music business. But it - and it started out playing and recording just traditional dance music, but as the years went on - and there's a parallel to black civil rights and eventually, Latino and Chicano civil rights out in California - that the label and the music and the musicians began to take on a lot more significance, so that this became a very, very influential and very popular as a means of expression of Latino expression.
All these young musicians were coming up and expressing themselves through traditional music, but with a very contemporary edge and a very New York attitude. And it was influential beyond the Puerto Ricans and Cubans. I mean, out in California, when I was going to college, a college party wasn't complete unless you had some Fania All Stars and some Fania artists on the turntable.
MARTIN: Okay. Let's listen to a little of Hector Lavoe singing the song, "El Cantante."
(Soundbite of song, "El Cantante")
Mr. HECTOR LAVOE (Singer): (Singing in Spanish)
MARTIN: Talk to me about it, Felix. What's distinctive about it?
CONTRERAS: His voice was very, very distinctive, and he came from a stable - Fania had a stable of signers, much like Motown did in Stax. And they often performed together as the Fania All Stars. And you had, you know, well-known singers like Celia Cruz, people who had very, very substantial voices. And Hector Lavoe didn't exactly have a muscular substantial voice, but his music and his style, kind of combined, was called the jibaro element in Puerto Rico, like the rural, folksy, you know, gutsy, folksy element to it, along with the refined New York sense. So those two combined, it made him very, very popular. And his charisma on stage was just - he just won the crowds over.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about salsa singer Hector Lavoe and the new film about his life.
And joining me is NPR producer Felix Contreras.
It's interesting because I - refined is a word I would use also, because you can hear every word. It's very - the enunciation is very styled, and I'm kind of wondering if the analogy is the Motown sound. One of the criticisms, of course, people have with the Motown sound is they thought it was too commercial or - but that there was an effort to kind of pretty up what had been kind of a bluesy, more gutsy sound. I wondered if the Fania All Stars encountered similar criticism, that they were too pretty, too, you know, perfect.
CONTRERAS: Well, that cut's a good example, because you hear these strings in the background. Those are live strings, where normally, perhaps you would hear horns, which they did do. But in this particular case, they had strings as a counterpoint, which was groundbreaking at the time. So there was a little bit of that. There was a little bit of a complaint from some of the people who wanted a more rootsier sound. But there were a lot of people who accepted it and took it to heart.
MARTIN: In the film, Marc Anthony as Hector Lavoe, does all his own singing. Let's listen to Marc Anthony singing, "Mi Gente" off the movie soundtrack.
(Soundbite of song, "Mi Gente")
MARC ANTHONY: (Singing in Spanish)
MARTIN: Do you think that this film, flawed or not or accurate or not, you know, whatever, it will open up salsa to an audience that has not yet discovered it? Or do you think that mainly people will be interested in who -aficionados like, you know, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, who look to these singers as kind of their artistic ancestors, as it were?
CONTRERAS: I think, just like the movie that Jennifer Lopez did, as Selena did for the Tejano music movement, I think that'll have the same kind of impact here - people who are curious to know about other types of musics, even - to a certain extent - how many people went out and buy more Ray Charles records. You know, I think these kind of films kind of open the gates and let people who are curious to know a little bit more about the music, they will go out and buy it. And, you know, look at all the number of salsa dance lessons that are held around the country in parks and recreation centers. So there's a great, big audience already, and I think it just might inspire a little bit more.
MARTIN: Can you salsa?
CONTRERAS: I can bust half a move. That's all I can do.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: All right. Felix Contreras is a producer on the arts desk here at NPR. He joined us here in our Washington studio. Felix, thank you.
CONTRERAS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: You're going to show me some moves?
CONTRERAS: Let's do it.
CONTRERAS: Play the music.
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: Have you seen the new film, "El Cantante"? We want to hear from you. Tell us what you think about the portrayal. Was it fair to the singer, or did it focus too much on his addiction? Let us know how it measures up with other films that profile the lives of entertainers, faults and all. Visit our blog at npr.org/tellmemore.
To tell us more, you can also share your stories and your thoughts on any of the topics you hear on our program. You can also call our comment line at 202-842-3522. Again, the number is 202-842-3522. We want to hear from you.
And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Let's talk more tomorrow, and let's hear a little more "Papa Na Bana."
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