The Boy from Medellin Review: An engaging documentary about a reggaeton star
The bilingual documentary weaves the personal with the political, providing a glimpse of the man behind the artist
Matthew Heineman’s bilingual documentary touches upon the personal and the political, with its Latin American reggaeton star baring his soul as the camera dogs his every move for a week. And what a stressful week it is! The seven-day period in November 2019 is to culminate in a massive concert in Medellin – the Colombian boy’s hometown.
Set on the backdrop of mass, widespread protests against Ivan Duque’s authoritarian government, the biographical account reveals a personal side to J Balvin. Far removed from his music persona (flashy clothes, expensive cars and fawning women), Jose, as those close know him, is humble, honest and prone to exploring his vulnerability. He makes no bones about his ongoing struggle with depression and anxiety, referring to the former as a crippling, out-of-body experience. In a freewheeling chat with the star, his long-time partner’s father puts it succinctly. “I didn’t want my daughter falling in love with the famous artist, J Balvin, but with Jose, the human being. Balvin has this reputation of a playboy, adored by women, and Jose is the one who is grounded and in pain. The persona is strong. The person is real, vulnerable.”
Director: Matthew Heineman
Cast: J Balvin
These two seemingly divergent entities come to a head in the midst of an internal crisis. Heavily criticised by a large section of his people for being apolitical and cautious with regard to the subject of protests against Colombia’s oppressive government back home, the singer must make a choice – either ignore the chatter or use his fame for the advancement of his people.
A critique that keeps popping up on social media is of him being the lukewarm boy of Medellin. Another user calls him out for using his own people to make his music and millions, but lacking the basic courage, when it comes to the crunch, to look beyond his swanky Miami mansion. Even efforts of engagement are met with derision. One of these is a much thought-out Instagram post in memory of Dilan Cruz – an 18-year-old protestor killed by local police. Balvin’s feed lights up with responses like: “Oh, so he’s finally posted something?”; “No mention of who’s responsible for the murder?”; "It’s not a death, it’s a killing!”
While his mental health is teetering on the brink, he is advised by his core group (girlfriend, family, friends, therapist, and management) to shut out the white noise. “It pisses me off what’s going on. I don’t support what’s being done to the people. But here’s the thing. Regardless of what I say, people will still be upset with me. Those criticising me for not caring have no clue how hard I’ve had to work for everything. They are in difficult circumstances, but am I the one to blame for it? I don’t see my name on the ballot box,” he says to a TV journalist, explaining his side of the story.
His dilemma of whether to make a political statement or not in the wake of Colombia’s crisis is indeed engaging, but more could have been delved into with respect to his childhood and the struggles faced growing up. A fleeting mention is made about his parents’ precarious financial situation during that time and him wanting to provide for them, but little is explored beyond that. And while Balvin speaks earnestly about his panic attacks and depression, and methods for relief (therapy and meditation), the subject is superficially handled. The timeline of early symptoms and whether they were brought on by trauma (we keep hearing how hard he had it as a kid, but nothing concrete is discussed to that end) are never broached. What works well in the documentary is the guilt and torment experienced by the star in the lead up to the big concert in Medellin. He is a classic over-thinker, and it is this very impediment that stands in the way of him doing the right thing.
Through days of anxiety, not knowing whether the anti-government protests will come in the way of his precious concert, we are given a glimpse into the man behind the persona. The moving footage provides a rare window into the philosophy Jose lives by. And then there’s the matter of speaking up for what’s right. As his manager says, “J Balvin has a platform. Jose is the one who needs to speak. The truth is, great artists are the ones who use their voice for other people.” Against the background of Colombia’s Arab Spring, Heineman blends fine stage performances with home video-like scenes and conversations beyond the spotlight, ensuring that The Boy from Medellin is as personal as it is political.