Do even the most apolitical artists have a responsibility to find and take a stand when society is crumbling, or should the forms of pop that have always ridden along on surface pleasures still be allowed to be a demilitarized zone? These are questions that clearly face all marquee American entertainers in the fall of 2020, if only long enough to dismiss them. They faced Latin superstar J Balvin in a bigger way last November when a personally triumphant hometown stadium show happened to coincide with his native Colombia reaching a flashpoint of historic turmoil. It also coincided with Balvin being followed by a documentary crew in the week before the gig, resulting in “The Boy From Medellín,” an Amazon original that shows the reggaeton singer being forced to develop a political conscience, whether he wants one or not.
If you were going to put “The Boy From Medellin” on a pop-doc double feature, it’s very much of a piece in some ways with “Miss Americana,” the Taylor Swift documentary that premiered at Sundance this year and saw that superstar coming out of the closet as a political animal with no love lost for a certain breed of Republicans, Trump included. There are even similar scenes where we see the star discussing the ramifications as “send” is about to be hit on a fateful text addressing a hot-button social topic. The crucial difference, though, is that while some of Swift’s team are trying to talk her out of declaring a stance, Balvin has key players wanting to talk him into making declarations. His final conversion may be a foregone conclusion, but he’s not going to be pulled into getting political for even a moment without a lot of kicking and brooding.
The latter quality comes naturally to Balvin: One thing he has been bold about, as his star has risen, is his own depression, as he has urged his fans to take care of their mental health, too. For someone who seemingly doesn’t want his music to be about anything but uplift and good times, Balvin wears just about everything heavily when he’s out of public view, with a resting-worry-face that seems at odds with his status as one of Latin music’s foremost international ambassadors.
He’s perfectly open about being prone to panic attacks under the best of circumstances — and he develops more good reasons to have one as the clock ticks down to the stadium show, with physicians and psychiatrists alike showing up at his home to treat him for both anxiety and laryngitis. Injections are made into the (Louis Vitton-clothed) buttock; pills are discussed. As protesters fill the streets to rise up against right-wing Colombian president Iván Duque, and Balvin seems to be the only entertainer not canceling his gig, he reads some of his worst social media critiques aloud. All this candor is meant to impress … and, actually, up to a point, it does.
The problem is that, if Balvin actually has a conversion experience, we never see it, so it remains uncertain at the end whether he’s really experienced any kind of enlightenment about the need to address what’s going on in his country or finally does so because it’s actually the career path of least resistance. A fascinating scene midway through the film has him meeting with journalists to promote the stadium show, as he gets highly defensive about his essentially apolitical stance, letting you realize just how far he has to go to reach any epiphany. There’s a bit of a “Let them eat cake” tone-deafness to what he says to the reporters, but he’s making points all along that should at least be up for discussion, about whether it’s incumbent on even the lightest entertainers to get heavy with the weight of social commentary. In any case, he invites one of his foremost media tormentors to meet up and hear out his exhortations. And if there’s a deus ex machina moment, it’s when mega-manager Scooter Braun (who is an executive producer on the film) shows up the day before the big show to give his client a pep talk about how it’s the responsibility of great artists to speak out.
Director Matthew Heineman may seem a little overqualified for this gig, since even a tortured pop hagiography is a bit of a comedown, as exploring pits of hell goes, from more obviously grueling previous assignments like “Cartel Land,” “City of Ghosts” and “A Private War.” So you can imagine how he might’ve brightened when the unrest in Colombia was taking off right as he showed up to track what could have been a more navel-gazing kind of showbiz story. But even if he was handed a narrative arc on a silver platter, it’s the little, personal moments in “Medellín” that really stick and show his filmmaking acumen. The things you remember from it may not be the important ones so much as the sight of Balvin peeing into a bottle during a costume-change break in his four-hour show, or delaying his departure for the concert to make sure every switch in his house is turned off, as he sinks deeper into some sort of OCD/depressive pre-show funk.
That climactic concert sequence turns out to be the least interesting part of the show, as, amid the adoration and frolic, Balvin takes a time-out to make a statement that is caring but not wildly controversial — and you’re thinking: All that angst for this? The star may have become a new avatar of Colombian social consciousness, or he may have just covered his ass; there’s insufficient evidence to really guess, either way.
But if the film falls short as a possible tale of heroic enlightenment, it’s still pretty absorbing, in the in-between moments, as a study of a dude still working out the intersections between wild public success and neurotic torments. To the extent that its middle and best section is really a story of politics driving someone already prone to depression deeper into it, that’s when “The Boy From Medellín” feels most timely.