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Review: Ron Howard's Jay-Z Documentary 'Made in America' Tries to Be Too Many Things & Doesn't Always Succeed

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by Abdul Ali
July 11, 2014 12:37 PM
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"Made in America" has all of the ingredients of a train wreck—its director, Ron Howard, reportedly had only 10 days of preparation takes the helm of this mammoth project executive produced and starring an equally mammoth personae: Jay Z.  This documentary suffers an identity crisis: it poses as a backstage pass to a turnt-up music festival but it’s really a short biopic about Jay-Z and his ascent in Hip Hop as an elder statesman.

This film shouldn’t be new to readers of Shadow & Act given that its been around the block a couple of times, making its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, and in 2012 airing on Showtime chronicling an urban Woodstock of a music festival in Philadelphia. "Made in America" will also hit theaters on July 11th.

The first five minutes of the documentary makes clear that the documentary will tilt more on Jay-Z’s rise from his bootstraps in Marcy Projects to a part owner of the Barclay Center a few miles away. There should be no mistaking that the music festival is ornamental to Jay_z’s narrative. Minutes after, the camera cuts into the vibrant cast of musicians that make up the "Made in America" music festival which include: Gary Clark, Jr. D’Angelo, Dirty Projectors, The Hives, Mike Snow, Janelle Monáe, Odd Future, Rita Ora, Passion Pit, Pearl Jam, Run D.M.C., Santigold, Jill Scott, Skrilex, and Kanye West.

“We are all flawed human beings. Based on my experience, I would never have believed I’d be here today,” says Jay-Z from the backseat of his Maybach, pontificating on politics and pop culture. There’s a subdued Marxist vibe that runs through the film that saves the it from complete celebrity naval gazing.

We meet an enterprising single mother who risks everything to purchase $6,000 in food to earn enough revenue to pay rent and tuck away start up cash to buy a taco truck. This festival is her claim to the American dream, one forkful of lard at a time. We see the security staff waxing poetic about the American Dream and hustling until the pickings get sweeter.

There’s an elderly white woman who’s watching the festival set up from her window. She speaks into the camera offering a dose of humor and an outsider perspective to the “racket” that will soon envelop her home. Ron Howard arrives in the elderly woman’s home and asks her how is she taking all of the excitement about the festival. The woman responds “I find it particularly annoying.”

After a series of vignettes from the artists the documentary slowly takes shape. The women’s stories take more interesting turns. Janelle Monae tells the director why she wears white-and-black as her uniform in homage to the labor that her mother and father did their entire lives. Santigold talks about her father who grew up in Philadelphia with some challenges as an adolescent becoming an attorney and her mother who picked cotton as a child in Mississippi and later becoming a psychiatrist. This segment sharply contrasted with the ways in which the music industry for so many artists—mostly black—is their way out of the underclass.

It’s hard not to compare "Made in America" to "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party." "Block Party" was just that, no self-aggrandizement, it was completely about the music and its transformative power to bring people together. "Made in America" wants to be too many things: about the festival, about the artists, and most pronounced about Jay-Z’s ascent from Marcy Projects, to the film’s detriment. And while this is my criticism of the documentary, it’s also its merit. We witness Jay-Z as a generous patron saint who has the clout to pull something of this scale together, to celebrate artists of different genres and ethnicities, revive the local Philadelphia economy, and somewhere along he tell his rags to riches story.

The documentary would have benefited from decentralizing Jay a bit. Rather than having the artists talk about their stories, maybe have childhood friends or others tell that story for them; this would have given the documentary more grit and perhaps more credibility.

"Made in America" music festival’s memorable performance are without doubt: D’Angelo’s 20-second neck whop with the lady punkster in the leather suit; Run D.M.C.’s throwback hit song “It’s Tricky”; the entire audience was lit. Rita Ora’s nod to Notorious B.I.G. was also dope for a singer from West London.

The peripheral stories surrounding the narratives of the artists—the workers—who made the festival happen were the most interesting. The stage hands. The single mother. The security staff. How many of us think about how many crab balls a vendor needs to sell in order to break even? Or to move out of a trailer? This is how you appreciate the view away from the stage.

Phase 4 Films has set a July 11, 2014 theatrical release date for the film, and a July 22 VOD debut.

Abdul Ali (@abdulali_) is a regular contributor to Shadow & Act.

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