''It was like, the more he grew as an artist, the more he sank as a person,'' says Puchi Perez (Jennifer Lopez, naggy), speaking of her late husband, salsa vocalist Héctor Lavoe (Marc Anthony, saggy). Actually, it wasn't like that; it was that, according to El Cantante, a conventional, brassy blat of a biopic. Director/co-writer Leon Ichaso's decision to settle for a familiar Detrás de la Musica del VH1 arc humble beginnings, sudden fame, tragic excess, fall from grace makes his subject's tormented life feel reenactment-flat. ''He was funny,'' says Puchi. Really? Because here, the sad clown who once posed on an album cover as Chaplin comes off as merely...sad.
Certainly, Lavoe's life conforms to our ingrained notion of pop tragedy. With Nuyorican trombonist Willie Colón, he cemented the salsa sound of the'60s and '70s with genre-defining tracks like ''El Malo'' and ''Aguanile.'' But where, within Lavoe, did that sunny sound originate? And how did it square with his thunderously dark depression and resultant drug binges? Ichaso, who was clearly hired to shoot some hybrid of a home movie and a circa 1992 music video, asks these questions only out of narrative obligation and doesn't bother to supply answers. Anthony, with his famished thousand-yard stare, turns in a delicate perhaps too delicate performance more informed by the shadow of Lavoe's death (from AIDS in 1993) than the spark of his art. And his shrill domestic scenes with Lopez feel small and squalid, as we wait restlessly for the band to play us out. C