What was meant to be a rather straightforward fusion of a biopic and concert film for Colombian reggaetón superstar J Balvin and documentarian Mathew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts and the upcoming COVID-19 documentary The First Wave) turned into something altogether different as soon as Balvin’s private jet landed in his native Medellín, Colombia in late November, 2019, seven days before a sold-out stadium show there. The first in a series of protests against the policies of conservative president Iván Duque had erupted across the country days before his arrival and would eventually turn violent throughout, costing the life of student protester Dilan Cruz among others.
Now, a year and a half later, more than a week before that documentary, The Boy from Medellín, was scheduled to be released by Amazon Prime on its streaming service, protesters once again took to the streets of Colombia to protest the government’s now shelved tax reform plan, the excessive use of force by security forces, as well as the perennial issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality, now made worse by the pandemic. As I write this, the protests have left about 800 people injured across the country among protesters and police alike and 24 dead as a national strike was taking place.
The 2019 protests took Balvin by surprise. He didn’t know how to respond. But this time around he did so… immediately.
On Monday, May 3, he joined fellow Colombian artists Shakira, Maluma and Juanes in expressing his outrage at the violence by posting on his Instagram account (while tagging both CNN and the United Nations Human Rights Commission): “Necesitamos paz y amor, se perdió el control de la situación. Esto es de derechos humanos !!! We need help Colombia needs help SOS. @ivanduquemarquez paremos esta guerra civil…” (“We need peace and love, the situation is out of control. This is a human rights issue … @ivanduquemarquez let’s stop this civil war…”) The message received over 886,000 likes.
The release of The Boy from Medellín may have originally been planned to coincide with the artist’s 35th birthday on May 7. But given recent events, the documentary marks a before and after for the reggaetón star.
In it, the artist born José Alvaro Osorio Balvin not only provided Heineman and his mostly Colombian production team and film crew complete access to his every move but, in one of those happy accidents documentary filmmakers pray for, they became witness to and were there to record what feels like a crossroads for Balvin as he tries to figure out what his role is as an artist at a time of political and social turmoil—especially in a country, and a continent, where art and politics are so intertwined.
The film opens on a concert in Mexico City where Balvin proclaims to the packed auditorium that “I’m not from the left, I’m not from the right, I’m going forward.” Those words will come back to haunt him. While the talk of the town, at least on the radio stations he tunes in on his way to his home in Medellín, is about his triumphant return to the city, he is also being criticized on social media by protesters and rappers (one of which, Mañas Rufino, posts vicious raps against Balvin that go viral) for not taking a stand on the protests. Heineman and his team follow Balvin and his entourage from media engagement to media engagement to meetings with friends and associates in his apartment, staying close to him while venturing out to the streets to capture the protests and the tension in the air.
Balvin talks candidly about his life, his early homemade recordings, his brief move to Miami where he painted houses by day and performed at night, his struggles with anxiety and depression, his OCD, his addiction and his desires. He visits Medellín’s poorer neighborhoods and debates with friends whether he should say something about the protests or not. He spends hours with his nose glued to his smartphone, monitoring what others say about him on social media, while receiving phone calls and text messages from colleagues and friends. Balvin agonizes over every photo not taken with a fan and over every social media posting. And he needs the constant assistance of his personal physician and therapist to control his anxieties. He is even diagnosed with laryngitis days before the concert, one more source of anxiety for the performer. And yet, he refuses to cancel it while other Colombian artists are doing so in solidarity with the protesters.
Heineman is far more interested in how events unfold than in building any kind of suspense, partly because we know Balvin will have to say something, the question just being the how and when. Considering reggaetón’s urban and working-class roots, a sharper focus on his music, on Balvin the composer, would have been welcomed. After all, it is precisely because of those roots, of that feeling that he is one of us (a notion that Balvin nurtures in all his appearances), that led many of his fans and fellow artists to expect some kind of reaction from him.
Watching the film prior to recent events, I was left wondering, by the end, if Balvin had learned anything from the experience. After all, the film is so focused on the days leading to the concert that it leaves very little room for any post-concert reflection. The film ends just as Balvin is leaving the stadium after his four-hour concert, heading back home, his fans surrounding his car as he makes his way through.
Unfortunately, Heineman only shows us bits and pieces of the concert. While the backstage stuff is compelling, I wish he had given us a bit more of Balvin’s marathonic extravaganza, one which featured guest appearances by Nicky Jam and Bad Bunny, among others. Not only was this the concert that capped a wild and crazy year for Balvin, it was also one of the last mass concerts held in Latin America before the pandemic shut everything down. Balvin himself was diagnosed with the virus last year. Given that he took to social media to ask his fans to take the pandemic seriously, in the same way that he is now using it to express his thoughts about what is happening in his country, shows that he may have learned something about his responsibility as an artist.
The Boy from Medellín may capture one brief moment in the life of J Balvin, but his story is far from over.
Featured image: J Balvin in ‘The Boy from Medellín’ © 2020 SCV JB CONCERT DOC PROJECT, LLC