For a great many, J Balvin is an iconic reggaeton singer. For yours truly, this documentary is literally the first time I’d heard his name (save your hate mail, I’m terrible with music). Ridiculous? Perhaps, but that’s just the truth. Still, this actually works in the favor of The Boy from Medellin, a documentary playing at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Much as it seems to be made for fans, it also introduces the man in a fairly compelling manner. I might not have known his name or his music previously, but my interest has been piqued. Credit to this doc for making that happen.
The Boy from Medellin is perhaps an unusual project from an Oscar nominated filmmaker in Matthew Heineman, but it all works towards a very specific goal. Showing at TIFF, the doc is, at its core, a character study. The fact that it’s a well known musician, and one contemplating social unrest, at that, is part of what gives this one some extra personality. That personality comes in handy and puts the film over the top.
A profile of J Balvin (whose birth name is José Álvaro Osorio Balvín), a massively famous Colombian reggaeton singer. The doc follows him as he prepares for his 2019 homecoming concert amid rather intense political turmoil in his country. The focus is on the week leading up to Balvin’s big performance, which will be his first ever solo stadium show. The pressure is on, but that’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Columbia. With protests going on all around the town of Medellin, unrest is more than afoot.
Between prepping for his show and pondering the state of Columbia, there’s a lot going on in J Balvin’s head. This is something he tackles head on, being honest about his mental health. It’s a stunningly open way of addressing these issues. Many an artist would be worried about revealing his mental state. Not Balvin, and that’s to the benefit of the documentary, as well as the audience.
Academy Award nominated director Matthew Heineman brings his talented eye to this musical profile. His documentary Cartel Land, and even his narrative effort A Private War, demonstrated how good he is at capturing compelling individuals. Here, Heineman makes J Balvin the focus, through and through, but the camera sees through the stardom. The concert and performance footage is fine, but when it’s just the man and his mental health, things are fare more interesting. It’s not the stunning effort that Cartel Land was, but few are.
What dings this one, at least in my eyes, is that it does still feel a little cautious in its content. Balvin is open, sure, but it does still seem a bit on the calculated side. That’s nothing new, as other recent documentaries like Miss Americana had a similar thing on display, but with Taylor Swift, it was also a commentary on the image Swift had long projected. Here, that doesn’t seem to be the case. It’s not a huge issue, but it is noticeable. (And yes, this does probably also tell you a bit more about my musical tastes)
The Boy from Medellin will work best on J Balvin fans, but that’s certainly not a prerequisite here. Watching a famous musician deal with the unrest in his homeland, as well as the chaos in his own mind, makes for compelling viewing. The documentary deserves not to fall through the cracks, not just at the Toronto International Film Festival, but in general release as well. There’s something a little unusual going on here, even if it seems to be in a fairly normal package.