Matthew Heineman has spent his entire career shooting hell from the inside out, and after a string of hyper-visceral films about drug smuggling (“Cartel Land”), the Syrian civil war (“City of Ghosts”), and a journalist who died covering it (“A Private War”), you’d be forgiven for assuming that his “The Boy from Medellín” is a real-life version of the guts and glory Pablo Escobar biopic that Vinny Chase starred in on “Entourage.” But it turns out that Heineman’s latest documentary is a very different vision of Colombia — one seen through the eyes of a very different (but no less famous) Colombian. And while it’s not short on political violence and volatility, the hell that it captures is of a more interior sort, and seemingly only a stone’s throw away from heaven.
Not that the Escobar connection is an accident. An intimate, open-hearted, and occasionally insightful profile of a mega-successful musician who’s forced to untangle his responsibility as an artist and as a Colombian in the tumultuous week before the biggest concert of his life, “The Boy from Medellín” introduces reggaeton superstar J Balvin (aka José Álvaro Osorio Balvín) as a 35-year-old who still has some growing up to do, but knows that he wants to show the world a different side of the country he loves.
“I’m Colombian and proud to bring my country to other parts of the world,” Balvín says to a horde of blissed out fans at the Mexico City show that opens the film. “I’m not on the left or right, but I’m always walking forward with dignity and respect.” Meanwhile, in his hometown some 1,900 miles away, the people he claims to represent are taking to the streets in heated protest against the corruption of Iván Duque Márquez’s government and the economic inequality that’s been exacerbated by his policies. With only five days before his first performance at the massive football arena he went to as a kid, innocent demonstrators being murdered by police in full view of the public, and millions of fans pleading with their nation’s biggest star to amplify the cause before it’s lost altogether, Balvín is on a deadline to decide once and for all what being an artist will require from him. That might seem like an easy call to make from the outside, but as anyone who saw this year’s similarly themed (if even sharper) Taylor Swift documentary can attest, it’s hard for anyone so widely loved to risk being hated.
And J Balvin is very widely loved. He was the world’s most-streamed artist on Spotify in 2018. When he performs a big show, the likes of Jay-Z and DJ Khaled call him with congratulations. If you had one million Instagram followers, he would still have 42.7 million more. J Balvin is a big fucking deal. But José Álvaro Osorio Balvín sometimes doesn’t recognize him in the mirror. There’s a split there — a split that Heineman keys into despite having just over 100 hours with his subject before the main event.
J Balvin is a world-beater, but José Balvín has suffered from anxiety and depression for as long as he can remember. The man behind them both was always self-divided, but success and expectation has pulled him apart at the seams in a way that’s made him vulnerable during the middle. “It’s hell for real” Balvín tells his manager. “Why am I feeling this shit? It’s a fear of fear. If I’ve made it on stage, I’m fine.”
Any documentary about the woes of a rich and famous person risks being self-involved and out of touch, and that’s something that virtually all such films try to confront head-on, if only so they can do so on their own terms. For a guy seen packing his entourage onto a private jet in the first 10 minutes of this movie, Balvín doesn’t have much trouble staying down-to-earth. Loud and colorful in a way that camouflages his underlying sensitivity, the Reggaeton star is extremely conscious of how he comes across at all times, and always in a heated debate with himself and his inner circle as to what having a voice really means in a world so full of people who are struggling to be heard. And, for the week leading up to this concert anyway, Balvín seems to invite Heineman right into the heart of that inner circle, as “The Boy from Medellín” takes a fly-on-the-wall approach that codifies its subject’s authenticity at every turn.
When Balvín insists that he’s haunted by the face of every fan with whom he didn’t have time to pose for a selfie, you believe him. When he can’t stop himself from taking the bait and responding to his trolls on social media, you feel the sharp needles of a guy suffering from impostor syndrome in his own home. And when he acts like this one concert is going to forever define who he is as both a celebrity and a Colombian, you so completely accept the reality of those stakes that Heineman is caught flatfooted about how to sustain the tension until the big show.
There’s no world in which this movie exists without Balvín finding a way to reconcile the person he is with the persona he projects — no world in which this movie doesn’t end with his soul accepting that he’s growing up (to paraphrase how he likes to put it). A cynic might even say there’s no world in which Balvín would roll out the welcome mat for Heineman if he couldn’t already tell which way the wind was blowing. But Balvín — who obviously couldn’t have known how heated things were going to get in Colombia, or that a young activist named Dilan Cruz would be killed in the streets — may have needed this kind of outside pressure in order to push him out of his comfort zone and galvanize him into action.
It would make sense if Balvín was already heading in that direction, as “The Boy from Medellín” gets a bit squidgy when it comes to charting its subject’s change. It works as a simple but affecting portrait of anxiety and depression in someone who has the power to help normalize both, it works as a vivid testament to the idea that even the icons among us are forever in the process of becoming themselves, and it works as an extremely broad overview of the Latin Spring and the political unrest that’s been flaring up around the world throughout this new age of populism.
Heineman only falters in the same place that his subject often has: In knotting those disparate parts into a cohesive whole. We trust that Balvín is able to thread it all together, but “The Boy from Medellín” has a patchy sense of that process, with Heineman overplaying the “what’s going to happen?” tension around the concert at the expense of the tiny breakthroughs that take us there. Once Balvín declares his support for the protestors in an Instagram post, what is left for the concert itself to prove? And if the answer is “nothing,” why doesn’t Heineman slow things down enough for us to soak up the show?
And then of course there’s the most pressing question of all: Now that Swift and Balvín have both commissioned portraits that paint them in generous and compassionate lights, are we staring down the barrel of a zillion similar documentaries about famous people struggling to define themselves in the age of social media? It sure feels possible. But the more we ask of our artists, the more we have to accept what they need from us in return.
“The Boy from Medellín” premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. Amazon will release it in the United States.