Review: The Boy From Medellin
The Boy From Medellin is a documentary that follows reggaeton superstar J. Balvin as he returns home for a giant stadium show. It is directed by Matthew Heineman, who made the great Cartel Land and City of Ghosts. This is a major departure from his usual subject matter. While the film is well-made, it often comes across as calculated rather than candid. That isn't a compliment when talking about a portrait of a pop star.
The film's title refers to Balvin's nickname. He is a global star so one can see why he would be careful about the image he puts forth. However, there is a sense that everything he says in this documentary is thought through very carefully to the point that it feels inauthentic. This is a shame as it is clear from the early moments in the film that Balvin is a charismatic and interesting figure.
Heineman chronicles the week leading up to his 2019 homecoming concert in Medellin, Columbia. Balvin is very nervous about the show. There are some very compelling moments where Balvin opens up about his depression and his relationship to it when on the road touring. In these moments, Balvin seems to let his guard down, admitting that he needs the love of his fans to help him get out of a stint of depression. It is clear that Balvin feels he could lose his fans at any moment and so he is very careful about how he presents himself.
This leads Balvin to be hesitant to speak out about the protests of President Duque that are going on in Columbia. Many fans and fellow Columbian artists look to Balvin to say something, to take the side of the protesters. He refuses as he doesn't want to get political, he just wants to entertain. The trouble is when your fans are dying for a cause, not taking a side can be seen as taking a side. This thread is fascinating and builds on a larger question about artists and politics and how they interact. The trouble is that it isn't followed through on. Much of the tension and drama in the film comes from whether or not Balvin will say something at the concert about the protests. When that moment happens, the film ends and no further exploration of the topic is taken.
Still, Balvin is an interesting artist and when he lets his guard down, The Boy From Medellin fascinates. It is a shame this only happens a few times. Scooter Braun is Balvin's manager and is also an Executive Producer on the film. This might explain the image control that is felt often in the film. I wouldn't claim that parts are scripted but there is a sense that things were discussed before filming began. Unlike the recent Billie Eilish documentary, this one is not warts and all.