There’s an enormous amount of what one might charitably refer to as self-affirmation expressed by the featured performers in “Made in America,” Ron Howard’s collaboration with Jay Z and an account of the Brooklyn rapper-mogul’s first-annual "Made in America" music festival. (The second edition took place a few days ago, again in Philadelphia.)
Such sentiments are hardly alien to the music in the movie, or the message of the festival, which Jay Z intended as a showcase for racial, ethnic and musical diversity. He expresses those sentiments with populist aplomb and diplomatic savvy: “Made in America” ends up a great promotional device for the musicians and the festival, but also for Jay Z himself, who by the end of the doc seems poised for a jump into politics.
He doesn’t dominate the music, though. Pearl Jam, who shared top billing at the three-day Made in America fest, is electric; lead singer Eddie Vedder provides some of the movie’s more charismatic moments, either singing or talking about national destiny. There’s also a reunited, two-member Run DMC (Jam Master Jay having died in 2002) and such rising stars as Janelle Monae, Rita Ora, the Boston-based band Passion Pit, an operatic Jill Scott, the ethereal rock ensemble Dirty Projectors and a concussive performance by the electronic musician/DJ Skrillex.
Howard, here in Toronto pushing his Formula One drama “Rush,” takes care to cover all the demographic bases: he provides lengthy interviews with the stars, and stars-to-be (Monae and Ora should benefit mightily from the exposure they get when the film premieres on Showtime October 11). But he also interviews a struggling food vendor hustling her way to profitability; an elderly neighbor of the Philly venue (Fairmount Park) who reflects humorously on changing musical tastes; and a hard-working stage hand who offers his thoughts on what it means to make it in America today -- a theme that runs through the movie and is addressed by virtually everyone, often quite eloquently, usually quite passionately, and not quite often enough to get in the way of the music, which is frequently brilliant.