The Boy From Medellin (Amazon Prime) presents a week in the life of J Balvin, the Colombian reggaeton superstar who broke worldwide with hits like “Ginza” and “Mi Gente” and the Cardi B and Bad Bunny collabo “I Like It.” 40 million units shifted and billions of YouTube streams later, he’s brought it all home to Medellin for the biggest concert of his life.
THE BOY FROM MEDELLIN: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: “Reggaeton-Ton-Ton-Ton-Ton-Ton!” The chant electrifies a vast Mexico City crowd as J Balvin performs one last arena show before jetting off to Medellin, the northern Colombian city where he was born and first came up. It’s been a whirlwind for Balvin since 2014, when his slick, hooky spin on reggaeton took the Latin music market by storm before crossing over to wider audience response with the song “Ay Vamos” (thanks in part to its placement in Furious 7) and the mega, mega, mega hit “Ginza” from 2016, a skittering earworm with a rhythm and hook that speaks the international language. As Balvin’s private jet wings toward Medellin, a supercut of his media saturation appears — Latin Grammy hauls, appearances on Fallon and SNL; name drops from Barack Obama. Not bad for a middle class kid with not much more than an MPC beat machine, big dreams, and bucket loads of hustle. Balvin arrives at home one week out from the big gig, set to go down at Medellin’s cavernous Atanasio Girardot Stadium, and director Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts) captures the events of Balvin’s life as he prepares for the show.
Huddling at his sleek, modernist crib in Medellin, Balvin tells his team how he remembers going to Atanasio 15 years ago to see all the reggaeton greats, “Nicky [G], [Daddy] Yankee, Ivy Queen.” Now it’s his turn. But while the entire city pulses with excitement about the concert, it’s also roiled with protest, as supporters of “The Latin Spring” take to the streets to call out Colombian president Ivan Duque and demand social and economic change. As the week goes on and the voice of protest rises in volume, the pressure mounts on Balvin to acknowledge the movement, and pick a side. He is taunted on social media as “The Lukewarm Boy from Medellin.”
In addition to the calls for social justice comment that question what his role is as a major Latin voice, The Boy From Medellin also explores the conflict Balvin feels between his public persona and the personal life where he’s still just Jose. He says the dichotomy contributed to his ongoing struggles with anxiety and depression, a journey he has spoken publicly about. (He’s shown doing so from the stage in Mexico City.) As the day of the show arrives and Balvin’s team of assistants, managers, stylists, and confidants flit about his personal universe, the question of how he’ll address the protests becomes as important as his personal state of mind and choosing which smash singles to perform for his hometown crowd.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Urbano/reggaeton star Nicky Jam, who appears on stage with J Balvin during the big Medellin concert, also features in a ten-episode Netflix dramatization of his life entitled Nicky Jam: El Ganador. For an overview of reggaeton’s rapid rise to international standing, check out the documentary Straight Outta Puerto Rico: Reggaeton’s Rough Road to Glory (Apple+; Amazon Prime). And if you’ve ever wondered whether Daddy Yankee starred in a de facto autobiography that switched out 8 Mile‘s Detroit locales for Puerto Rico, you’re in luck, because Talento de Barrio (2008) definitely exists.
Performance Worth Watching: This doc is Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin’s show from top to bottom, and he carries himself as a worldwide baller reggaetonero with a fleet of cars and Ducatis and Jay-Z and DJ Khaled on speed dial who nevertheless leads a humble, almost ascetic existence. If there’s static in Balvin’s rise to stardom or his current celebrity, it’s not included here. But tender close-ups of the artist as a practitioner of meditation, or him methodically hand toweling his face until it seems like he hopes his features will disappear, those are frequently on offer.
Memorable Dialogue: One of the doc’s most vibrant sequences takes place on ground level in Comuna 13, a Medellin neighborhood once notorious for crime and violence that has more recently been reclaimed by artists and young families. Balvin greets his fans, poses for selfies, and calls out greetings to people watching from the balconies and rooftops. And he sits for a photo surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of neighborhood folks, crowded around the star, beaming with pride, adulation, and fandom. “It was my own city who helped me raise my energy, and raise my music,” Balvin says in voiceover. “That’s why they call me ‘El Nino de Medellin.‘”
Sex and Skin: Well, Balvin takes a shower, so if you’re aiming to cop his tattoo game, you better crank up Amazon Prime. (No naughty bits, though — get your mind out of the gutter.)
Our Take: The Boy From Medellin gets across two important things about its subject: Jose Balvin, the man, absolutely adores his family, girlfriend, longtime pals, and hometown; and J Balvin, the superstar, is a construct powered by dreams, but built on a shifting foundation of anxiety, depression, panic attacks and the fear that he won’t be good enough for that city — or worse, fail that same family. In between its montages of Bentley-studded motorcades and the reaching hands of rabid fans, Balvin speaks directly to the camera in sit-downs that find him musing over the nature and relevance of mega-stardom, and how best to utilize the platform he’s reached. It comes from a place of honesty, but there’s also a twinge or two of anger, or even dismissal over what’s expected of an artist of his stature. “We’re supposed to be the ‘presidents of the country,’ to say what’s right or wrong, when we used to be what was wrong in society,” Balvin says in a mini-rant to a journalist. “What they didn’t want to hear…” Whether he knows it or not, in moments like this, Balvin seems to reveal a version of himself that would really rather not be tasked with answering for the questions of the protestors at all.
Still, he comes through when the moment is right. Finally, after hours and hours of music, partying, unadulterated joy and pure escapism, complete with smoke machines, confetti, multiple costume changes and onstage dancers emulating anime characters, the reggaetonero clutches his mic at the Antanasio show and speaks for his people. With the protests raging outside the stadium, and the lights of the comunas mixing with the glare from his massive stage, Balvin says “I speak in the name of the youth.” And after calling for a full minute of silence, the rousing finale of his hometown set feels like the consummation of the pledge for unity, peace, and humanitarian justice that the artist was struggling with and the protestors were calling for during the entire week of his life captured by The Boy From Medellin. It’s a fitting ending to this revealing doc.
Our Call: STREAM IT. Balvin’s party music vibe is invigorating, and though The Boy From Medellin could use more live footage, what it does contain is bright and immersive. In a larger sense, though, Medellin is really about Balvin’s very personal journey toward clarity and wellness.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
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