The Jay-Z fronted concert documentary Made in America could have just as easily been titled Made by Anybody. It’s a puff piece designed solely to play up the brands of every artist involved in Hova’s massive Made in America music festival in Philadelphia that started three years ago. It could have been made just as well by anyone who just stumbled out of film school given just how precious little this documentary demands from participants or the audience. But it wasn’t directed by just anyone. It was directed by Academy Award winning director Ron Howard, and aside from Howard lobbing the softest of softball questions at his subjects, you wouldn’t know the difference. It’s a 90 some odd minute commercial with often empty platitudes about what a large scale concert can do for a city in need.
The most widely respected hip-hop artist alive (sorry, Kanye), Jay-Z decided to hold a massive weekend long music festival in one of America’s most widely impoverished cities (that just happens to be close enough to New York) to toast to the spirit of the working class. On a mission to give people some good feelings as the country comes out of one of the worst economic collapses it has ever experiences, the watchword here is “positivity.” Bands and artists of all types, genres, and styles from around the world come out to entertain the masses and talk on camera almost devoid of any personality whatsoever about how important and meaningful this ultimately profit driven concert is. Aside from restating further just how great everything apparently is about the show, here’s a partial list of acts you’ll see partially: Pearl Jam, Skrillex, The Hives, Jill Scott, Janelle Monae, Dirty Projectors, Passion Pit, what’s left of Run-DMC, D’Angelo (!), Odd Future, and Shawn Carter himself.
Howard just stays out of the way of the clear and obvious awesomeness around him without ever really trying to make it look exciting or vital. His directorial stamp here extends as far as making sure his interview subjects don’t look bad. The camera is either locked off in a single place, and the concert footage is exactly every other bit of competently shot concert footage you’ve ever seen.
He can’t be bothered to leave in full performance footage because that isn’t exactly the point. Even when Pearl Jam delivers one of the film’s biggest highlights (a massive crowd singing along loudly and proudly to their Vitology hit “Betterman”), Howard lets most of it play before cutting out early. Most bands don’t even get that. The music isn’t the point here, man. The music is the reason for Jay’s awesomeness, man. Similarly the people whose lives the concert could actually touch (a group looking for exposure at the festival, a struggling food vendor, a random old lady with little patience for modern music), are included here as afterthoughts and are often edited around because they don’t seem to have the same kind of positive outlook that this show will be the greatest thing ever.
Jay-Z went corporate years ago, and in his numerous interviews here he comes across as nothing more than a shill. He regurgitates the same stories he has been telling for decades now about how he started off as a hustler in the Marcy Projects and how he’s eternally grateful that he can give back to a country that helped him escape the drug game. For what it’s worth, he’s so well rehearsed in these talking points interviews that he still comes across as genuine. I also don’t doubt that he truly believes the concert could be some sort of healing thing for the city of Philadelphia. It’s just that everything here is so old hat and on point that it’s extremely dull to try and care.
Every other interview subject fares similarly. The only people who seem to break from the mould are Eddie Vedder – who’s one of the guys you should turn to if you want someone to speak about social issues without sounding like a corporate hack – and Janelle Monae. She has a pretty great story about struggling to survive in America that fewer people have heard and that more people could benefit from hearing. Maybe the film should have just followed her instead.