REVIEW: J Balvin biopic challenges narrative that celebrities shouldn’t speak out on political issues



osé Álvaro Osorio Balvin, aka J Balvin, has a contemplative moment before a performance in the documentary “The Boy From Medellin.”

Maybe it was the lockdown-induced solitude that did it, but in the first half of 2021, it already feels like every musical artist and their mother has a documentary coming out this year. 

From Billie Eilish to Demi Lovato to Charli XCX to Questlove’s “Summer of Soul,” we’re seeing all sorts of artists bare themselves to both a camera crew and the world. But the latest documentary to come from a musician is J Balvin’s “The Boy from Medellín,” which stands apart from the rest of the pack. Though it may begin as your standard, run-of-the-mill celebrity portrait, the film quickly shrugs the traditional documentary style and instead opts to tell a story of a country in intense political turmoil seen through the eyes of one of its most beloved (and successful) artists – J Balvin.

“The Boy from Medellín” follows a week in the life of José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, aka J Balvin — the reggaeton superstar whose accolades include five Latin Grammys, three Grammy nominations, the title of most streamed artist on Spotify in 2018 and a whopping 47 million Instagram followers. Balvin returns to his hometown of Medellín, Colombia to play what he describes as the “most important” performance of his career — his first solo stadium show. 

When the tour was planned, the return to Colombia was supposed to be a celebratory homecoming for the beloved artist — nicknamed by fans “The Boy from Medellín.” But by the time Balvin finally arrives in Colombia, the country is embroiled in intense political turmoil with protests and strikes filling the streets.

As the days count down towards Balvin’s sold-out show, his jitters about the concert begin to manifest as he grapples with whether or not to use his platform to acknowledge the unrest in Colombia, or keep the peace and remain silent. What’s fascinating about the structure of “The Boy from Medellín” is that although at begins as a typical documentary, it very quickly shirks the idea that it’s a totally raw, vulnerable look at an artist’s life, and instead doubles down on the significance of Colombia’s unrest, and how Balvin struggles with what to do about it. 

At first, I admittedly found myself jarred by the narration — which almost felt so on-the-nose I assume it must have been scripted — the heavy direction, and the lack of authenticity the film initially presented. But as the film progressed, I began to realize I had headed into the film with the wrong idea of what it would be, because once you stop looking at “The Boy from Medellín” as a documentary about a celebrity and begin viewing it as a portrait of protest through the lens of an artist, the film really does soar.

Suddenly, the “peace and love” mantras that Balvin keeps repeating feel less grating and more genuine because we’re seeing his internal struggle play out in real time — to speak, or not to speak? Balvin makes it clear very early on in the film that he considers himself someone that stays out of politics, that he wants to remain an artist who brings positivity and energy into the world and who doesn’t get tangled up in political issues. But this rose-tinted worldview is challenged not only when he witnesses the protests first hand, but also when Colombian rap duo Doble Porción makes a track calling him out for his silence on the issue.

By his own admission, Balvin is a chronic people pleaser;he built his career by never saying “no” to a gig, even if it was at a school or a practically empty club. Now, even with his global fame, he stops to take pictures with anyone who asks for one — even in the middle of trying to get a workout in at the gym. He acknowledges his Type-A tendencies, and how they wreak havoc on his mental health at times.In addition to the Colombian protests, the film’s other major talking point is Balvin’s openness regarding mental health, depression and anxiety. So, what’s a type-A, people-pleasing Colombian reggaeton superstar to do when someone makes a diss track calling him out? Invite them to his concert, of course, so they can meet in person and talk things out face to face.

It’s a remarkable moment that gives insight into who Balvin truly is, because for all the glitz and glamor that surrounds his career and lifestyle, he truly does just want to be loved and understood as he loves and understands his fans and his home. His intense fear of criticism and not being liked clashes with his passion and love for his home, but if he speaks up on the issue, he risks causing an uproar. If he stays silent, he loses the love and respect of his people and does the country an injustice.

It’s an interesting take on the idea that celebrities should “shut up and dribble,” that they should stay out of politics entirely and stick to whatever they do best. At first, Balvin himself seems to subscribe partially to this idea, but the film is also exploring the journey he takes to build up the courage to speak up, which he finally does, giving an impassioned speech at his concert imploring the Colombian government to listen to the country’s young people.

While it may not be an entirely raw or unproduced look at the inner workings of an artist, “The Boy from Medellín” is an incredibly effective narrative on its own merit — using the starpower of J Balvin to tackle political unrest in Colombia, and examine the duty (or lack thereof) of celebrities to use their platforms to address sociopolitical issues.