‘The Boy From Medellín’ Review: A Dizzying Week in J Balvin’s World

The year is 2019 and protests in Colombia — the largest the country has seen in decades — have erupted against the government of President Iván Duque. The killing of 18-year-old Dilan Cruz by a police projectile makes its way into the reggaeton star J Balvin’s Instagram feed, which exacerbates his individual crisis.

It seems Balvin wasn’t sleeping well. In the days leading up to a sold-out concert on Nov. 30, 2019, in his hometown, Medellín, he begins to consider his responsibilities as a public figure. Social media users criticize his political disengagement, while uprisings in the city threaten to cancel his big night.

In “The Boy from Medellín” on Amazon Prime Video, the director Matthew Heineman captures a week in the life of Balvin, the Prince of Reggaeton, a charismatic performer who appears to be privately diffident.

Known for his gritty documentaries about international conflicts (“Cartel Land,” “City of Ghosts”), Heineman delivers a relatively sophisticated form of celebrity publicity in this film, armed with stunning concert footage but unoriginal insights into the burdens of modern fame, like the difficulty of balancing the expectations of fans with personal desires.

At the very least, attending a J Balvin show looks like it would be great fun.

Heineman weaves together clips from Balvin’s youth — his scrappy origins in the local music scene — with snapshots into his chaotic present. As the concert approaches, Balvin seems to be either on the verge of a panic attack or meditating with the help of his spiritual adviser. Destigmatizing mental illness is an important cause for Balvin, for reasons made intimately apparent.

Similar recent mythmaking projects like Beyoncé’s “Homecoming” and Taylor Swift’s “Miss Americana” have generated their own publicity by giving access to curated versions of the personal lives of musicians, which makes them seem real and relatable. In “The Boy from Medellín,” this curation is obvious.

Before Balvin hits the stage, his manager urges him to speak out and cites the activist roots of the American rap group N.W.A. I couldn’t help but chuckle at the comparison, since the artists responsible for explicit protest anthems probably didn’t need any encouragement to express their opinions. In “getting political,” Balvin risks alienating some fans, but he stands to win some as well — the viewers of this documentary, for instance.

The Boy from Medellín
Rated R for language. In Spanish and English, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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