Who is The Boy from Medellin for?
I kept wondering this as I watched Matthew Heineman’s sleek and intimate documentary about Colombian superstar J. Balvin. Set in the week leading up to Balvin’s concert in his (and my, it must be noted) home town of Medellin, Colombia, The Boy from Medellin is less a music doc than a character study. The Cartel Land and City of Ghosts director handily manages to construct an unvarnished behind the scenes look at the man behind “J. Balvin.” José Álvaro Osorio Balvín offers himself to Heineman’s probing gaze with the same earnestness with which he lets fans everywhere — at photo shoots and gyms, on the streets and at concerts — take selfies with him. He’s not shy about sharing his story nor letting the camera catch him at his most vulnerable, whether that be at the shower or in conversation with his spiritual advisor. José has a charming self-effacing way about him, he truly wants to be seen by audiences and to truly connect with them either in those spur of the moments or in the manufactured ones he creates in concerts and social media.
And there is a level of access here that suggests we’re not just meeting the outward persona this young paisa created with his music but the adult he may well yet become. This may be no mere biographical doc but Heineman does spend time getting you up to date on Balvin’s life and career so that you can better appreciate why his concert in Medellin’s Atanasio Girardot stadium means so much to him. A montage showing Balvin going from demoing a song with his collaborators, then slowly to different (and increasingly bigger) crowds is one of the many moments where The Boy from Medellin’s narrative efficiency is most obviously displayed.
Focused as it is on giving us a verité look at Balvin’s week leading up to his big gig, the doc is necessarily light on these broader strokes. Which is fine when distilling the career of a successful musical artist and providing an empathetic portrait of an individual grappling with his mental wellbeing, but less so when a sociopolitical clash that speaks to decades of a country’s inequality must be summarized to explain why protests around Colombia ahead of Balvin’s concert risk derailing the apolitical message of peace and love he so prides himself on delivering with his music and persona. In many ways, The Boy from Medellin betrays the very spirit of Balvin’s crossover success (he openly admits he’s refused to record songs in English because he wanted to stay true to his roots) and even of the heartwarming narrative of “José” finding a way to address complaints he’s now so far away from Medellin and Colombia that he’s lost touch with his home country and its peoples.
In having Balvin address the camera in English in the film’s (albeit refreshingly candid) confessionals, as well as padding much of the news reports that give context to Colombia’s protest from English-language media, Heineman tacitly constructs an audience that is “global” by definition. The documentary may end up triumphantly showing Balvin finally addressing his fans with powerful words that show them he’s listening to the social unrest around them all, but the message of The Boy from Medellin can’t help but address everyone outside of that packed stadium, that changing city, that grieving country.
Which is all to say: this is a very well-put together nonfiction film that’s sure to be labeled “timely” and “urgent” if you’re to watch it from a U.S.-centered POV that will only understand Colombia’s protests as either preface or mirror images to this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests and which keenly puts questions about the role of the artist in the face of injustice front and center.
That universalizing feeling is admirable but, as a Colombian — albeit one who, like Balvin, gets to see his country from afar now that I live and work in the U.S. — it left me wanting a more localized point of view, one that didn’t end up framing Medellin, for instance, as synonymous with the Comuna 13 which, as in Balvin’s photo shoots, remains a mere colorful backdrop packaged for global audiences clamoring for local Colombian flavor. As much as I enjoyed The Boy from Medellin, I wish we’d gotten El niño de Medellin, instead.