Before J. Balvin became a record-breaking chart-topper, he was José Álvaro Osorio Balvín, just another boy in Medellín, Colombia, with big dreams and an even bigger drive to make them come true. In Matthew Heineman’s documentary, the pop star alternates between his carefree onstage persona and who he is when the cameras and fans aren’t around. He’s especially open about his struggles with mental illness in an effort to destigmatize the subject for his fans and listeners. Centered on the artist’s biggest concert, “The Boy from Medellín” gives fans an all-access pass to candid moments and confessional interviews during one of the most emotionally charged moments of his career.
Focusing on the week leading up to a sold-out show in front of 50,000 people in his hometown, Heineman’s “The Boy from Medellín” tracks not only the day-by-day progression heading to the big event but also the recent political upheaval in Colombia that’s at odds with Balvin’s music. As the artist readies his voice and chills with friends, there’s a constant stream of news about country-wide protests and tragedies carried out under orders from right-wing President Iván Duque. It’s a harsh reality Balvin’s fans are pushing him to speak about, but throughout the documentary, he deliberates whether or not he should say something at all. He’s not naturally into politics, and he’s not interested in making statements that could turn fans against him.
Sadly, the documentary doesn’t explore the issue of politics and art beyond Balvin, but other Latin American artists have also been asked to speak on the issues roiling in their respective countries. For J. Balvin, he sees the prospect as a lose-lose situation that will make no one happy. After the death of a student at the hands of heavily armed military forces, he relents on his original outlook and decides to finally say something, which not everyone in his inner circle supports. The documentary’s curious look into the world of celebrity takes in all of its thorniness and its perks in equal stride. In the middle of it all is a sensitive guy who’s forced to grow a little in the face of a national tragedy.
Although he’s surrounded by candy-colored cartoon statues at home and on stage, sometimes the cutesy world Balvin has designed for himself is at odds with the very serious interviews he gives Heineman. With a light sleepy drawl –– the product of tour exhaustion –– he dives into his struggles with suicidal thoughts, obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety with utmost honesty. Now mostly on the other side of those first struggles with mental illness, he shares how he’s managing those illnesses with the help of a cadre of doctors and a spiritual advisor. These scenes can feel as if we’re seeing something too private, but Balvin is just as comfortable sharing these moments as he is cuddling with his girlfriend, model Valentina Ferrer, after a long day.
Yet, the documentary’s intense gaze at the artist leaves out some of the context that might be useful for first-time listeners. For J.Balvin fans, “The Boy from Medellín” is an easy sell. It’s more of an artist they already admire and listen to. But for newcomers who haven’t yet nodded along to some of his hits, his music doesn’t always get to play through and the highly anticipated homecoming concert plays in excerpts. Despite some home footage video of his past, the film lives mostly in that solitary week, leaving out some of his many previous accomplishments or a wider lens into how J.Balvin and fellow reggaeton artist Bad Bunny are effectively chipping away at macho norms with their bright clothes and open discussions about their feelings. There’s a lot more to talk about in regards to J.Balvin than “The Boy from Medellín” goes into but the documentary’s overall experience is still an enjoyable one that’s full of catchy music, candid moments with the guarded performer and one seriously fun show at the end of it all. [B-]