Courtesy of TIFF

TIFF 2020: The Boy from Medellín Review

Doc profiles Colombian reggaeton singer J Balvin

6 mins read

The Boy from Medellín
(USA, 95 min.)
Dir. Matthew Heineman
Programme: Special Events (World Premiere)

“Artists have always been on the frontlines of moving things forward because they’re the voice of the people,” says Scooter Braun in The Boy from Medellín. Braun, an entertainment manager, speaks with his client J Balvin after the Colombian reggaeton superstar commits a social media gaffe. The Boy from Medellín intimately observes Balvin as he negotiates his role and responsibility within his community after achieving worldwide fame.

J, short for José, Balvin carries the pride of his hometown of Medellín on his shoulders. For a city with a population of over 2.5 million people, that’s a heavy load. Balvin is the joy of Medellín, however, and he beams when telling the camera that it feels good to give his hometown an icon to root for after drug kingpin Pablo Escobar was its most famous resident. Director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) captures a homecoming of sorts for Balvin as he films the singer readying for a massive outdoor concert in 2019. The doc observes how someone like Balvin can go from painting houses and cutting tracks to being the most-streamed star on the internet. His global success tells Colombians that their voice matters as he finds fame by recording and performing in Spanish.

Music doc fans looking for the conventional backstage tour film won’t find it in The Boy from Medellín. The doc provides enough context about Balvin’s life and success to inform viewers who aren’t familiar with his music outside of a Justin Bieber tune. However, the portrait is mostly for fans as it offers a window into Balvin’s humble origins without pushing his buttons. The film bares the obvious influence of chronicling a subject who is also a stakeholder in the project. (Unlike, say, All In, which benefits from the participation of Stacey Abrams on both sides of the camera.) Balvin, as well as his managers Braun and Allison Kaye, are among the doc’s executive producers. On one hand, the film is a straightforward celebrity profile that enjoys respectable access to its subject life and observes them intimately to share their story. On the other hand, The Boy from Medellín is a Matthew Heineman film and its attention frequently becomes distracted by the action happening outside the frame.

The backdrop for The Boy from Medellín is far more interesting than the favourable celebrity profile at its core. Both Heineman and Balvin seem to realise this sentiment. The lead-up to Balvin’s concert unfurls as student protests erupt through Medellín in response to reforms proposed by right-wing President Iván Duque Márquez. As Balvin encounters hordes of fans everywhere he goes, the student protests rocking the nation, and threatening to cancel his concert, make him reflect upon his celebrity status. Balvin wonders how stars like himself can better their communities.

Heineman captures the weight of celebrity when Balvin struggles with a do or don’t moment before hitting the button to publish a post on Instagram. His post memorialises a student who was killed during the protests. The choice to publish is also the choice to use his platform for political purposes, rather than to merely promote himself. His post provokes numerous comments and he doesn’t get the reaction he expects. His fans see the tribute as half-hearted, empty, and performative because it acknowledges a life lost, but doesn’t address the social factors that caused it. The tense exchange between Balvin and Braun that follows sees the singer get a wake-up call about using his platform responsibly: he either needs to go all in or merely step back. This decision becomes an underlying conflict as his big concert approaches.

The Boy from Medellín is actually much like Balvin’s Instagram post. It doesn’t go all in on the greater story in which Balvin finds himself, but it acknowledges it. Like Balvin’s post, Heineman’s film is hardly performative, but it straddles myriad factors. This director has a perfect eye for trouble, having documented drug cartels and the revolution in Syria from the front lines in each case. Similarly, his riveting dramatic feature A Private War proves a fascinating human portrait because burrows deep within subject Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike) to observe her workaholic lifestyle and fatalist work ethic. The Boy from Medellín evokes the same tension that Balvin faces when debating to publish. The intent to do good and honour the larger picture is present, but it doesn’t go all in and is a near-miss as a result.

The Boy from Medellín premiered at TIFF 2020.

Visit the POV TIFF Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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