Producers: Matthew Heineman, Juan Camilo Cruz, Myles Estey and Joedan Okun  Director: Matthew Heineman   Cast: J Balvin   Distributor: Amazon Studios

Grade: B

The long last portion of Matthew Heineman’s combination biography/concert film consists of footage taken at a four-hour extravaganza that reggaetón superstar J Balvin headlined in his Colombian hometown late in 2019.

For much of its running-time the picture has been a fairly conventional treatment of a popular singer, enlivened by his own selective memories and a grab-bag of archival materials.  But the portrait is darkened by Balvin’s emphasis on his longtime struggle with anxiety and depression, a struggle he admits is far from over. 

That element is perhaps what attracted Heineman—whose career has concentrated on far grimmer subjects than the life of a pop singer—to the project in the first place.  But if so he got an unexpected dividend in the political turmoil that had exploded in Colombia’s cities during the weeks before Balvin’s huge stadium concert.

The country was rocked with street demonstrations opposing the actions of President Iván Duque, and in Bogotá, a teenaged student had died two days after being shot by riot police.  Balvin, whose inclination was to remain apolitical even in the face of the turmoil, came under pressure to speak out about the young man’s death, and issued a statement of sympathy that was deemed too mild.  Heineman’s cameras capture the singer’s vacillation about how to handle an increasingly dicey situation, including what seems to have been a decisive moment—a visit from his American manager Scooter Braun, who advises him strongly that now stronger action is needed.

The upshot is Balvin’s giving a brief speech calling for the government to listen to the demonstrators and requesting a minute of silence from the crowd in the middle of the concert.  As political testimonies go, it’s hardly a ringing call to action, but Heineman spotlights it as though it were.  Certainly the crowd appears to have thought it a sufficient response to what was a PR crisis as well as a national tragedy.

Whatever one’s feelings on that score, the concert footage as a whole certainly captures the exuberance of Balvin’s music and his extroverted performance style, and given what the film has emphasized about his psychological demons and desire to bring some joy into the world, it represents a triumphant return to Medellin for him.

Heineman’s film is certainly skillfully put together.  The camerawork by a quartet of cinematographers—Drew Daniels, Heineman, Clair Popkin and Matt Preiss—is a good mixture of hectic intimate moments and slicker public footage, and the editing by Heineman, Sebastian Hernandez, Fernando Villegas, Pax Wasserman and David Zieff is also deft.

“The Boy from Medellin” will obviously have its greatest appeal for those who are already Balvin fans, but the darker undercurrents should make it intriguing to others as well.