By Liz Lopez
Matthew Heineman (Cartel Land, City of Ghosts, A Private War), an Academy Award®-nominee and Emmy-winning filmmaker, changes course with this music biography doc about one of the biggest international music superstars, J Balvin (born Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin) from Medellin, Colombia. The Boy from Medellin takes a look at a week in the life of the Reggaeton artist as he returns to his hometown for a sold-out stadium show. Balvin prepares for what he considers “the most important concert of his career.” What started out as documentation of this concert takes a turn with the growing political unrest in the streets of Colombia in November 2019. Viewers do not have to know all about this Latin Grammy-winning musician before watching the film, yet can learn about him and his life, while also learning about his public announcements of anxiety and depression and advocating for taking care of one’s mental health. It is during this week of film footage for The Boy from Medellin that both fans and the general public alike will be able to see the toll on a young man to give his best show, and his struggles to respond to public pressure to say or do something with regard to the politics in his home country. Clearly this is not a concert film, but Balvin opening up to the world about the challenges of mental health and addressing his responsibility as a public figure who has fans around the world.
The Boy from Medellin does provide unprecedented access to Balvin, his life and what it takes to put on a show of that magnitude with no other artists on the bill. There is no doubt the film crew was following Balvin when he gets up in the morning and when he goes to bed. He has a social media following that is beyond huge and that in and of itself is stressful, aside from adding additional criticism about politics that he is not wanting to comment about. He has to decide if he will win some fans or lose some. There is plenty of footage of how he strives to take care of himself physically and emotionally, but some viewers my grow weary as they watch his daily struggles to take the next step in his career of taking more responsibility beyond his music and concerts. It is refreshing to view scenes of him interacting with the citizens and fans out in the community, keeping it light and posing with all who want a photo. He states he even worries about any one fan who may have been left behind without an autograph/photo.
I would have enjoyed more of his concert performances woven in, and some fans may be disappointed with this, but there is no doubt J Balvin opens up about who he is as Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin off stage and the human being that is behind that public persona.
Directed and Produced by Matthew Heineman
Executive Produced by Fabio Acosta, Scooter Braun, Allison Kaye, Scott Manson, Jennifer McDaniels, Jenna Millman, Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin, Juan Diego Villegas
Produced by Juan Camilo Cruz, Myles Estey, Joedan Okun
95 Minutes | Rated R
The film was premiered at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and is now on Amazon Prime Video as of Friday, May 7.
Press conference with J. Balvin [from Amazon Prime Video – APV]
Amazon Prime Video: Congratulations on the documentary. Where does the desire, the interest to make a documentary about this week so important and so chaotic for you professionally come from?
J Balvin: It wasn’t planned, really. It had nothing to do with it. We were just going to do a concert special. Like everything in life there is a 99% that is out of our reach and that’s why Matthew redirected this whole situation to what was happening. So it wasn’t planned, it wasn’t like, “Let’s talk about this,” because we were just going to my concert and telling the story of the concert in a very normal way, obviously the process, how tedious and what it takes to be able to do a concert, but it was not in our hands that there was going to be a social disorder that difficult week.
APV: Mental health is an important topic in the documentary, and you have talked a lot about it on your social networks. What was it that motivated you to express yourself and share this so personal about your life?
J Balvin: It is that I believe that in the end it is a reality, how it is happening in COVID. Mental health illnesses are also a pandemic, they are in all parts of the world and many people are simply afraid to speak about them and recognize them. It’s exactly the same as the situation with COVID, when at the beginning of COVID people would say, “I have COVID” and people would run away and like, “You’re weird.” In the end, most of us end up infected. The same thing happens with mental health diseases, many people have suffered them, many people in a more acute way, others less acute, but it is part of reality.
APV: How did the experience we see in the documentary change the way you use your social networks, perhaps to express yourself, to speak out on social issues?
J Balvin: It is still an apprenticeship because we did not choose to enter the world of politics. Our choice was purely musical and entertainment. What happens is that today we have a bigger and more powerful platform than that of any politician. That is when you have to begin to understand the social responsibility that you have as a public figure. It was not easy, it has not been easy, but here we continue to learn.
APV: Something that you talk about in the documentary that you touch on it briefly, is the fact that you have always wanted to continue making your music in Spanish. It was difficult at first, maybe that the industry accepted that your music is in Spanish?
J Balvin: No or if I saw it, I don’t remember. I do not have any kind of bad memories about it, I was always very faithful and very faithful to my movement and what I wanted to achieve. Here we continue, and we will continue making music with love and with the desire to internationalize our Latin culture throughout the world.
APV: Returning to Medellín for this important concert that we see in the documentary, does the city continue to inspire you after so long?
J Balvin: 100%, that’s my home, it’s where I grew up, where I was born, in the city that saw me grow up.
APV: You also speak in the documentary of the song El Cantante by Héctor Lavoe, which is a very good song. Do you remember when you heard it for the first time or when you began to identify with it?
J Balvin: I was very young when I heard it and I never thought it was going to touch me, that is why it causes me a lot of nostalgia when I listen to it after I have grown up and realize that this message was direct for me and for many.
APV: You also talk about José first and then Balvin, how do you achieve a balance between these two facets of your life?
J Balvin: It is not easy, that’s why I am looking for balance because there is always an imbalance at some point, it is complicated, but here we are still looking for that balance.
APV: In seeing you on the screen in the documentary, did it show you, did it teach you something new about yourself perhaps? Did it make you see, reconsider anything about yourself?
J Balvin: Yes, I am more and more human and I try to be a better person.
APV: There is a lot of vulnerability in the documentary, it seems to me.
J Balvin: 100%, is that we are all vulnerable, what happens is that there are those who want to accept it and those who do not want to accept it, but finally we are all under the same shadow. Vulnerability is part of the human being, whether you want to accept it or not.
APV: Was there a moment in the documentary that was recorded that was not important to you perhaps?
J Balvin: There was so much information, so much that I could have done three, four, five, six hours of information.
APV: In the documentary the people who are around you, your whole team, people close to you, it seems that sometimes we as a public do not realize the moral and emotional machinery that an artist needs to be on the stage.
J Balvin: Yes, obviously, but the most important thing is to surround yourself with good people, people who are better than you, so that I can someday become like them.
APV: Being away from the stage during this pandemic, how complicated has it been for you?
J Balvin: Super difficult, you need that dose of dopamine, joy and feel that emotion from the public, feel people close, you really need it.
APV: Do you think that through what we see in the documentary maybe the fans can connect a little with you? Not only in the emotional way, but also to see a bit of this concert.
J Balvin: I think that in this documentary they will suddenly learn not to judge others so easily.
APV: Sometimes we forget that we are all human beings.
J Balvin: 100%, I do try to keep it in mind because that keeps me grounded.
APV: Are you currently in a creative moment in your life? Are you perhaps planning the next step?
J Balvin: Yes, I keep making music, creative. Unfortunately, Colombia is also going through a process that is the same or much worse, really. That makes me sad, that makes me sleepless, that’s why I’m wearing glasses at this hour and yawning because I haven’t slept thinking about what else I can do to help. Although I’m already here working. I used my networks platform yesterday at 4:00 AM, I couldn’t take it anymore and I said, “It’s time to reactivate that one– to tell the world what is currently happening,” because it is very sad, it is very sad. There is a civil war at the moment and there are no words for it. We wish that through love, tolerance and conversation we could reach something. Hate generates more hate. I only wanted to share a couple of images to open my eyes to what is happening, but from now on everything is more like the way we are going to approach to be able to fix this complex situation.
APV: Use your voice to the best of your ability.
J Balvin: Exactly.
APV: Is there anything else you want people to know behind the documentary? You say that you lived in the United States, you worked. Many people can relate to that experience, how did it affect you?
J Balvin: It marked me to continue learning, you have to keep fighting every day and your future is not in the hands of others. You have to be the creator of your own present and your own future. Just as I worked illegally in the United States and had to go through many tests, here we continue to fight and work for it. My message is one of struggle, not to give up but to continue insisting.
APV: Among all the important messages in the documentary, what is the one that reaches you? Among mental health, what we see of fame perhaps?
J Balvin: Everything. Something is going to fall to someone, something is going to make someone understand what is happening, and also how it touches us or how it was my turn to learn and see how this situation is handled, which is not easy to face, especially when they are political situations.
Source: Amazon Prime Video