‘The Boy From Medellín’ review: Colombian pop star J Balvin’s political awakening

The Prince of Reggaeton goes back to his roots

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    This documentary film about Colombian superstar J Balvin could have felt like an expensive puff piece. It follows the musician known as the “Prince of Reggaeton” during preparation for a huge homecoming show at Medellín’s Atanasio Girardot Stadium, an event he regards as a career highlight. But because this milestone gig coincides with a period of civil unrest in Colombia – the most intense in a generation, according to a member of the singer’s entourage – director Matthew Heineman manages to capture Balvin as he recalibrates his purpose as an artist.

    Heineman, who previously made A Private War, a biopic of war reporter Marie Colvin, and the Mexican drug war doc Cartel Land, begins filming Balvin as he arrives home seven days before the gig. The so-called “boy from Medellín” prides himself on being a positive ambassador for a city that has been unfairly overshadowed by the legend of ’80s narcoterrorist Pablo Escobar. Balvin speaks candidly about his battles with anxiety and depression, which he believes are rooted in his career’s false start as a teenage immigrant trying to make it in Miami. However, other more clichéd scenes seem to betray the fact that he and manager Scooter Braun are credited as executive producers. Why would a superstar with 47 million Instagram followers choose to work out in a public gym unless he wanted to be mobbed by adoring fans – and to have this moment filmed for posterity?

    J Balvin
    J Balvin, the world-famous Colombian pop star. CREDIT: Prime Video

    Thankfully, the film acquires some urgency when Balvin is confronted with a growing social media firestorm. Colombia’s young people are taking to the streets to protest against crippling economic policies introduced by right-wing leader President Ivan Duque, but Balvin is called out for staying silent. When he shares an Instagram post in memory of Dilan Cruz, an 18-year-old protester who died after being shot by riot police, he attracts further criticism for failing to apportion any blame for the tragic death.

    It’s easy to see that the film is heading towards an emotional speech at Balvin’s homecoming show even before Braun gives him a pep talk that pricks his conscience. “Artists have always been on the frontlines of moving things forward because they’re the voice of the people,” the manager tells his client, gently encouraging him to stop sitting on the fence politically. A brief meeting between Balvin and Mañas Ru-Fino, an up-and-coming artist who criticised him on social media, is probably more revealing. When the younger musician explains to Balvin why people from “my generation” are protesting, he unwittingly highlights the fact that Balvin is becoming out of touch.

    Heineman doesn’t really drill down into the bedrock of Balvin’s political reticence – is he too cautious, too ill-informed, too career-minded, or a combination of all three? Still, it’s fascinating to watch an artist of his stature change tack, even if his address to the Medellín crowd is more about displaying empathy for the protestors than rallying them for further action. And whenever the film shows Balvin bossing the stage with his obvious charisma and galvanising reggaeton beats, there’s no denying the Boy from Medellín’s ability to connect with his fans.

    Details

    • Director: Matthew Heineman
    • Starring: J Balvin, Scooter Braun, Mañas Ru-Fino
    • Release date: May 7 (Amazon Prime Video)
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