J Balvin is nervous. He might be a multi-award-winning pop star and the best-known face of the most popular music genre of the moment — yes, Reggaeton is even bigger than Kpop — but he’s a week out of a homecoming concert in Medellín, Colombia, his first solo stadium gig. And his throat is sore.
A close member of his entourage tries to encourage him, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. It’s already sold out.”
José Álvaro Osorio Balvin is one of the most upfront celebrities about mental health in the world. He has spoken about anxiety and depression movingly and often in acceptance speeches, on Instagram Live and on his songs, many of which have a billion streams or more. Matthew Heineman’s close-up documentary, The Boy from Medellín, is just the latest contribution to a growing literature. It’s also a lot more than that.
A week out of the show, Balvin’s private jet lands in his hometown and the preparation begins. He chills at his house (which is a good deal bigger than the Park family home in Parasite) and does his best to keep a lid on things. Balvin is, at least on the surface, a less serious subject than Heineman’s usual topic of interest. But J Balvin isn’t like other pop stars.
That much is clear from the countdown, Heineman’s clever choice for a dramatic setting inspired perhaps by the lead-up to a Royal Albert Hall show in D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal Bob Dylan doc Don’t Look Back. Balvin is nothing like Dylan — in some ways for the better — but the reggaeton star feels a similar weight of obligation combined with a reluctance to shirk his duties to fans who have made his dreams a reality. And there’s nowhere better to be reminded of that than Medellín.
Medellín, nevertheless, won’t fulfill Balvin’s fantasy for that tense week of preparation. Mass anti-government protests rock the country and necessitate a swift response from Colombia’s favourite son. Balvin’s subsequent uncertainty about whether to speak and unease about what to say prove a substantial and unexpected test.
Watching a torn celebrity reflect on his responsibilities to the city that made him is gripping, and Heineman is right to fixate on it. There’s a lot else to like about The Boy from Medellín, but this inner tension is surely the highlight. It elevates the fly-on-the-wall format far above its traditional limitations and marks a welcome return home for one of the world’s most talented documentarians.