Documentary Review: J Balvin IS “The Boy from Medellin”

What’s the old joke? “Authenticity is the hardest thing to fake?”

The new “countdown to my big ‘homecoming’ concert” documentary, “The Boy from Medellin,” presents a portrait of an artist under a lot of stress.

José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, aka “J Balvin,” is the “Prince of Reggaeton,” a best-selling, Grammy-dominating Latin superstar who has built a great career and attained great fame and wealth by being among the very best in the world at what he does. “Boy from Medellin,” released on his 36th birthday, is a video victory lap.

He comes off as an earnest, lightly-charming entertainer who “gets OCD” if he dodges a fan’s request for a selfie (VIDEO selfies, too), wears his Latin roots with pride and is gobsmacked by the tour receipts ledger his business manager shows him. And we also see a guy under enormous pressure to deliver when he does his first big “solo stadium show” in “the city that gave him to the world” (as Medellin radio puts it).

Like legions of entertainers before him, he insists (in English, and Spanish with English subtitles) “on stage, I become my alter ego. I’m J Balvin, off-stage I’m just ‘ José .'”

He takes to heart advice that he should “Be you. Never pretend.”

But hip hop or reggaeton, rocker or rising leading man in the movies, some artifice always enters the picture, some bits of self-mythologizing. Nobody wants to make it look “easy.” Some illusions an artist feels a need to make to rationalize that great success.

And when Balvin makes his first “up from the streets of Medellin” claim as footage of him with pals diving into a pool under a scenic waterfall, you smell the BS waft right off the screen.

He tells his hard-knocks story, moving to Miami to learn English and “follow my dream,” “painting houses by day,” renting limos and propping up his “superstar” pose by night.

“My poor friends thought I was rich, my rich friends figured I was poor,” he says.

He leaves out his time in Oklahoma and New York, an upper middle class exchange student shipped abroad to learn English. Fine. Artists make their own myth and if that’s what gets you through the day — mentally — have at it. Tupac took ballet as a teen, and nobody worked the “I’m from the street” angle harder.

Balvin speaks frequently of the “hard work” it took to get him where he is and there can be no doubt about that. But as the film’s limited to one week of his life, we don’t see process — no composing or writing, no recording studio time, no rehearsals, a stage show that involves a lot of co-stars carrying much of the load, and a lot of backstage breaks/costume changes in between his appearances.

What we see and hear a LOT — as captured by the many photos from the film posted above — is the mental toll this great fame has taken on him. He’s medicated and he meditates. “Meditation saved my life,” he says. He recalls huge weight gains, suicidal thoughts and near break-downs.

That’s the distinguishing characteristic of an otherwise generic “star in his moment” doc. An easy-going, affable guy has a lot on his mind and is suffering for his art.

And then there’s this concert, planned months in advance, but arriving as all of Colombia — former “cartel” capital Medellin included — is protesting the right wing government there.

The most interesting moments director Matthew Heineman captures on camera are the angst the superstar undergoes trying to figure out how to respond in a way that won’t make things worse, that won’t get people hurt or his concert canceled or broken up by unrest.

His diplomatic tweets and on-stage “statement” remind us he’s every inch the adult, and nobody’s fool. Perhaps politics lies beyond his days of Latin-flavored hip hop wardrobe and pop star hair.

Other revealing bits are less flattering — offering to meet “face to face” with a local critic who pans his music and posture, whining from the stage about his treatment by the press.

Truthfully, “revealing” this film isn’t. It’s emotionally flat, and with very little of his back story (a cute home video of an early concert where “no one has shown up, yet”) and not much of his music included at all. Compare it to the scores of such films on other artists, and there’s just not enough here.

That’s not really on him. J Balvin got to where he is through ambition and talent. It’s the film about him that doesn’t show that.

If you want to learn more about him, Wikipedia is a lot more helpful. If you want a concert film, this isn’t it. But if you want to see a singer at peak popularity interacting with fans, smiling in traffic and stressing out when he steps out of the public eye, have at it.

MPA Rating: R for language

Cast: J Balvin, his friends, family, doctor and entourage

Credits: Directed by Matthew Heineman. An Amazon Studios release (on Amazon Prime May 7)

Running time: 1:35

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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