El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances -- Film Review

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It bears the imprimatur of Norman Lear and George Lopez as executive producers and is distributed by Cinema Libre, known for handling social-issue films. But the satire lands softly in "El Superstar: The Unlikely Rise of Juan Frances," a mockumentary about the music-biz rise and fall of a white guy raised as a Chicano.

In the central role, screen newcomer Spencer John French has a gentle sincerity, a sweet tenor and a knack for ranchera guitar. Instead of anchoring his character in a spoof with bite, filmmaker Amy French has created an ensemble showcase for her brother. The film begins its Los Angeles run Sept. 17.

Juan Frances is a mild-mannered 33-year-old who was orphaned as a child and raised in Beverly Hills by his Latina nanny (Lupe Ontiveros), with gardener E.J. (Danny Trejo, underused) serving as surrogate father. The "joke" is that he's a pasty-faced redhead who is fluent in Spanish and devoted to the Virgin of Guadalupe; he considers himself a Mexican-American.

There's material to mine in Juan's eight jobs, but the director, who co-wrote the script with her star, leaves the cultural commentary on a low simmer. That wouldn't be a problem if she had chosen to forefront a story line less broad and cliched than what unfolds here.

The trajectory of a pure talent's discovery, corruption by stardom and rejection of his roots is as familiar as the showbiz hangers-on who facilitate his rise from open-mike nights at neighborhood bars. The agents of change are Juan's aggressively enthusiastic girlfriend, Angelica (Maria Esquivel), and unctuous impresario Narcisso (David Franco), both playing it way over-the-top. Lest any stereotype go unused, a West Hollywood stylist named Philip Fancydance (Louis Jacobs) helps with Juan's less-than-credible shift from humble balladeer to bling-happy reggaetonero.

The jokes play consistently at surface level, with many of the intended laugh lines involving silly acronyms. Juan, for instance, plays a benefit concert for Chiropractic Aid for Chicano Agriculturalists, whose shorthand name, CACA, is used in dialogue as often as possible. Amid all the low-impact improv, the songs, written by the Frenches, are the bilingual film's strongest element. Had the rest of "Superstar" pushed its parody as far, this might have been a more pointed and memorable debut feature.

Opens: Friday, Sept. 17 (Cinema Libre Studio).
Production: A Blue Cactus Pictures presentation in association with Act III Prods.
Cast: Spencer John French, Lupe Ontiveros, Danny Trejo, Elisa Bocanegra, Maria Esquivel, David Franco, Pej Vahdat, Sam Golzari, Louis Jacobs
Director: Amy French
Screenwriters: Amy French, Spencer John French
Producers: Chris B. Moore, Lara Bergthold
Executive producers: Norman Lear, George Lopez
Director of photography: Stephanie Martin
Production designer: Celine Diano
Music: Spencer John French, Amy French
Co-producers: Amy French, Spencer John French
Costume designer: Sara Walbridge
Editor: Timothy M. Snell
No rating, 90 minutes
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