By Drew Taylor | The Playlist July 11, 2014 at 10:02AM
The Made in America Festival is a two-day music festival that began in 2012 in Philadelphia and the visionary behind it is Jay Z, the rapper and entrepreneur who was, at least back then, in the process of stretching his multimedia empire far beyond rap albums. Instead of selling out arenas, he was buying them. And Made in America seemed like the perfect example of the kind of things Jay Z was now attempting; the hip-hop equivalent of diversifying your portfolio. But there was also something deeply personal about the Made in America Festival, and the metaphoric component of the project's inception is explored artfully in Ron Howard's gripping new documentary entitled, appropriately enough, "Made in America."
While Jay Z is undoubtedly the central focus of the documentary (as well as the movie's de facto narrator, making sweeping statements like "America is now accepting of all cultures," almost as soon as the movie begins), director Ron Howard, who has always had a fascination with self-made American success stories, reaches out and embraces a whole bunch of satellite stories that orbit around the festival. Sometimes it strays a bit too far from it's supposed center, but it's almost always engaging, sometimes in spite of itself.
Considering that Jay Z was the central force behind this event, you'd imagine that most of the artists he would line up would be from the hip-hop or rap world, but not so. Alongside a reunited Run DMC (who insist that they're not "back together"), the massive stages in downtown Philadelphia catered to artists as diverse as indie rap collective Odd Future, dance music superstar Skrillex, arena staples Pearl Jam, and rambunctious Swedish rock 'n' rollers The Hives. There's no real rhyme or reason to who was booked for the festival, and precisely for that reason, the line-up makes a beautiful kind of sense. If Jay Z's intention was, as he puts it, to create a "place where all cultures gather… and can be themselves," then the eclectic mix of performers certainly does much to reinforce that.
Howard spends a little bit of time with a handful of these performers, going vintage clothing shopping with Rita Ora, sharing a brief, biographical moment with Santigold, and letting Janelle Monae explain the methodology behind her decision to exclusively wear black-and-white clothing (it has to do with her working class parents, who wore uniforms for their entire lives). These vignettes have a loose, lived-in charm, and some of the best moments of the entire documentary occur when Ron Howard, not exactly the hippest filmmaker to be mounting a film like this, interacts with these young acts. There's a wonderful bit where Howard is having a heart-to-heart with the young, unhinged, uniquely talented Odd Future principle Earl Sweatshirt. After Howard asks him about how they set up their own company, Sweatshirt looks at Howard and snorts, saying, "I don't owe niggas shit." Howard later joins Skrillex back stage, and watching him noodle on his high-tech set-up, Howard notes, "I've never seen this before." This should finally dispel persistent rumors that Howard is, in fact, a big time raver.
Elsewhere, Howard grabs interviews with people involved in the festival in a behind-the-scenes capacity: Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter, who says he brought the festival to his city because he's a "fan of money" (even though he doesn't have much of it); a struggling single mom who has a food stand at the festival, hoping to raise money for the food truck she just purchased; a security guard who pontificates on the meaning of the American dream ("The dream is having personality," he says plainly); a roadie just trying to pay the bills before the weather gets too bad for these kind of massive, outdoors events; and, most hilariously, a blue-haired old woman who lives across the street from the park where the festival is taking place. She calls the entire festival "particularly annoying," but softens later—while listening to Jill Scott, she exclaims: "That's not bad."
And whenever Howard does choose to actually showcase the concert footage, well, that's when "Made in America" really comes to life. Watching Andrew Wyatt, lead singer for the electro pop outfit Miike Snow, take the stage, his long hair framing his sweaty face, is captivating and alive. It doesn't matter how much behind-the-scenes time Howard devotes to the band; their on-stage performance is all you really need. Howard, who has always had a handle on the particular rhythms of whatever project he's directing, cuts these sequences together beautifully, adding layer after layer of excitement until the screen feels like it's going to threaten to burst. Even though they're not the spring chickens they once were, watching Run DMC jump around on stage while performing "That's Tricky" is still genuinely captivating.
But this is a Jay Z documentary, first and foremost, and so much of the movie's second half is devoted to the performer. As Jay Z's power has increased over the years, he's become a less compelling rapper. He's amassed wealth and power and new avenues for both, but his last few albums have been disappointments, especially when compared to the work his protégé (and Watch the Throne partner-in-crime) Kanye West has been producing. (It's telling that the documentary and the festival are named after a Watch the Throne track and that the movie's climax is the two artists performing "Niggas in Paris" on stage together). Howard understands this, and uses Jay as a shining example in the larger, socioeconomic thesis at the heart of "Made in America"—that if you work hard, you can accomplish your dreams, no matter how oversized or unreachable they might seem. At one point Howard and Jay Z travel back to Brooklyn, walking through the crummy apartment building that Jay Z used to sling drugs in, which, amazingly, stands almost in the shadow of the massive Barclay's Center, which, at the time of the documentary, Jay Z owned a considerable share in. Jay says that he can see his old building from the swank club he had installed in the arena. When Howard asks him if he ever set out to be a leader, Jay Z answers, simply, "No." But like it or not, that's what he is.
And while the documentary is occasionally wobbly and unfocused, all of these stories, and indeed the entire festival, are tied together by the very best, most bedrock tenants of the American dream: that somehow, against all odds, we can all make it. It's something that Jay Z believes and it's something that Howard believes too. "Made in America" proves that the American dream is undeniably powerful, even to those who have accomplished so much that they have to appreciate it in a form that borders on the abstract. [B+]