Film Review: “The Boy from Medellín”

“The Boy from Medellín” sees J Balvin grapple with his role in politics as an internationally-recognized figure, giving viewers a flat and one-sided perspective on the issue, making for a frustrating watch at times.

José Álvaro Osorio Balvín — or, as most people know him, J Balvin — has become one of the biggest stars to come out of Latin America in recent years. Along with Bad Bunny, he has pioneered the crossover of Latin artists into the American music market in a way that past artists haven’t been able to — by singing only in Spanish. His new documentary “The Boy from Medellín,” directed by Matthew Heineman was released on May 7 of this year and, invites fans to take a look into the reguetonero’s life during the week before his homecoming concert at Medellín’s Atanasio Girardot stadium in a city upended by political turmoil.

During the seven days leading up to the concert, we’re shown shots and videos of the political unrest that has gripped Colombia (not unlike what the country has seen these past few weeks). As the stadium show approaches, Balvin experiences a flurry of criticism on social media for his silence on the government’s newly implemented labor reforms. The documentary excels in its depiction of Balvin’s internal conflict and strife that results from these criticisms as he turns to friends and assistants to vent about his frustrations with these critiques. Balvin feels that the criticism he’s receiving for his apparent political apathy is undeserved, maintaining that his job is to entertain, rejecting the notion that artists have any political responsibility. 

Accordingly, the film deals with the question of what responsibilities artists have in regards to politics, if any, but it’s answered in a very one-sided manner. Balvin’s perspective is the only one that is thoroughly explored, and while he is the protagonist of the documentary, it would’ve made for a more satisfying watch to see his perspectives challenged some more. Most of the people in his social circle that we’re introduced to come off as yes-men, easing the singer’s dilemma by agreeing with him and telling him what he wants to hear. It’s frustrating to see his friends tell him time and again that “people expect things from artists that don’t correspond to them, your job as an entertainer is to entertain, not to be a politician.” It’s not until Scooter Braun sits down with Balvin that we hear another take on the role of artists in politics. Braun doesn’t drop a moral philosophy lecture on Balvin, but he explains what many viewers are probably thinking: whether Balvin likes it or not, this is the price of having a platform. Frustratingly, Balvin jumps to defend himself rather than actually taking in what’s being said to him. Later on in the film, it’s revealed that Bad Bunny is slated to appear at the stadium concert. We’re shown a quick clip of him singing on stage, but nothing more. This feels like a missed opportunity that would have provided viewers — and Balvin — with a different take on the political artists’ roles in society at large, especially given Bad Bunny’s involvement in the protests against corruption in ex-Puerto Rican Governor Roselló’s administration.

Many of the critiques directed at Balvin in regards to his political silence focus on his status as a wealthy pop star, something which Balvin takes very personally, mentioning at one point that while his life might look like an easy one to outsiders, it’s not all rainbows and sunshine. Throughout the film, Balvin emphasizes this same talking point, citing his various struggles with depression and anxiety as proof of the hardships he’s had to endure in his life. Wealth obviously doesn’t make one invulnerable to depression and anxiety, but Balvin uses his struggles as an excuse for not listening to the political criticisms. He’s unable to see that his experiences with poverty as a struggling artist are the very reason he should speak out in solidarity with protestors. It shows not only a lack of empathy for his fellow citizens, but also how he’s lost touch with his roots. 

A large part of Balvin’s defense against the disapproving messages thrown at him focuses on his hard journey to stardom. We only catch a glimpse of this struggle, as Balvin retells his journey as an illegal immigrant living in Miami. He shares the debilitating nature of his depression as a recent immigrant to the U.S. Debating between staying and or returning to Colombia was an anxious time in his life, and one in which he even contemplated suicide. Balvin’s quick moment of genuine vulnerability provides viewers with a more relatable, honest self-portrayal; viewers are better able to relate to the singer, when he is grounded in his emotions, away from his mansion and luxurious lifestyle. I would’ve liked to see this side of Balvin explored more, especially in the ways that his anxiety and depression have impacted his new lifestyle. Exploring specific moments in his career where he has felt particularly hard hit by his battle with mental health would’ve given Balvin more depth and substance and given viewers a different image of Balvin. 

Balvin’s stance on his political responsibilities comes off as bullishly stubborn at times, equating his struggles with the violent oppression of a country’s people — country for which Balvin professes his love and pride for in the film’s first few minutes. Since most of his conversations with friends are repetitive in nature, with them, advising him to ignore criticisms and to continue down his path, it makes the ending of the documentary feel unearned. At the concert, Balvin decides to make a statement, asking the government to listen to the people, saying that “if the people are protesting it’s because something is not right.” In the entire documentary, we see only a single moment where his perspective is challenged, and even then he seems unrelenting in his insistence that he shouldn’t have to meet these expectations. As a result, his statement at the concert feels somewhat hollow. Balvin has given us no reason or hint towards what might have motivated his change of heart in these last few moments. His various statements about not wanting to say the wrong thing or fall out of favor with his public compound on this, make it difficult to tell if Balvin is speaking out because he actually believes it’s the right thing to do, or if it’s because he’s afraid to lose support.

“The Boy from Medellín” set out to give viewers a look into a week in the life of Balvin, as he negotiates his role as a performer in the larger political sphere. The film does what it sets out to do, if only partially. It grapples with the responsibilities that come with artists’ platforms — though the only artist whose perspective we hear from is the titular boy from Medellín. Providing other artists’ insight into the question would have pushed Balvin to engage with his role in society more, while also giving more weight to his final statement in support of protestors. The film gives viewers an incomplete picture of where Balvin stands as Balvin refuses to fully commit to a position until the very end. This feels frustrating, though fans of Balvin will still find the concert footage and fan interactions in this documentary fun and entertaining if nothing else.

Director: Matthew Heineman
Release Date: May 7th, 2021
Production Company: Amazon Studios
Rating: C

Image courtesy of latimes.com.