'The Boy from Medellin': Film Review | TIFF 2020

The Boy from Medellin
Courtesy of TIFF
For fans only, but has more on its mind than the average music doc.

'Cartel Land' and 'A Private War' director Matthew Heineman returns to docs with a portrait of reggaeton superstar J Balvin.

Appropriately enough given the subject matter of his celebrated documentaries like Cartel Land, director Matthew Heineman delivers something different from the usual rock-doc in The Boy from Medellin, his portrait of reggaeton superstar J Balvin: While offering some of the expected musical material and concert footage, the film is much more interested in the singer's emotional health, especially as it pertains to political unrest in his native Colombia. Though these themes might open the film up to interest outside Balvin's fan base, neither is explored with enough depth to really accomplish that; in practice, Boy is for pretty devoted fans only.

After a quick scene at a packed open-air concert in Mexico, the movie establishes its main focus: the week leading up to Balvin's first solo stadium show — "the most important concert of my life" — in his hometown last November. Such countdowns to big performances are usually tiresome attempts to establish structure in loose entertainer-centric docs, but here there's a dramatic purpose: Though Balvin (born José Álvaro Osorio Balvín) doesn't fully grasp their importance yet, massive protests are taking over the streets of Medellin, and the strife will only get worse as the week progresses.

A couple of succinct title cards or well-chosen news clips would enrich this picture for Americans who haven't paid sufficient attention to years of "Latin Spring" uprisings. In this case, hundreds of thousands of people filled streets across the country with assorted grievances against the administration of President Iván Duque. At one gathering, teen protester Dilan Cruz was killed by a police projectile, days before he was to graduate high school.

Many Colombians expected Balvin to have something to say about all this, and his reluctance, over these seven days, is the picture's main drama. Much too concerned about social-media haters, the singer frets about suggestions that he's "lukewarm" toward his native land, that he prefers to hang out in Miami and ignore local controversies. As he talks things over with a spiritual advisor, a shrink, his managers and assorted personal assistants, one of his laments is clearly true: Having been publicly apolitical for years, at this point anything he says will elicit criticism from across the political spectrum.

Complicating matters is the movie's other main concern. At the very start of his career, Balvin experienced depression; as his fame grew, his anxiety and depression caused weight gain, health issues and sometimes required hospitalization. He's been increasingly candid about this over the years (in that opening Mexico concert, he assures fans who struggle that they are not alone) and seems able to be pretty clear-eyed at this point, admitting his fear won't last even as it grips him. But of course he worries about panic attacks as the stadium show approaches.

In between all this and many scenes of life around Balvin's luxe bachelor pad, there's occasional talk of music. Newcomers are unlikely to become fans based on what we see here, and fans probably won't learn much. But they'll appreciate the doc's final twenty or so minutes, which offer glimpses of a long and varied (and successful) concert that reassures both Balvin and his audience that they belong to each other.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Special Events)
Production companies: Our Time Projects, SB Films
Distributor: Amazon Studios
Director: Matthew Heineman
Producers: Matthew Heineman, Juan Camilo Cruz, Myles Estey, Joedan Okun
Directors of photography: Drew Daniels, Matthew Heineman, Clair Popkin, Max Preiss
Editors: Matthew Heineman, Sebastian Hernandez, Fernando Villegas, Pax Wasserman, David Zieff
Composers: H. Scott Salinas, Sky Rompiendo

In Spanish and English
95 minutes