Film Review: ‘Made in America’

Ron Howard revs up his documentary engine for this energetic tour in front and behind the scenes of Jay Z's Philadelphia concert cavalcade.

'Made in America' Review: Ron Howard

And now for something completely different: Ron Howard follows the revved-up Formula One action spectacle of “Rush” by taking the wheel of “Made in America,” an ambitiously multifaceted documentary about the eponymous 2012 Philadelphia music festival organized and headlined by Grammy-winning multihyphenate Jay Z. Set to air Oct. 11 on Showtime, five weeks after its Toronto Film Festival premiere, the pic is less than fully satisfying as a conventional performance cavalcade, but sustains considerable interest as a behind-the-scenes overview of a musically and culturally diverse event.

Not incidentally, “Made in America” also suggests that Howard — who reportedly threw himself into the project with just 10 days of prep, and who also makes a perfectly respectable oncamera interviewer  — should be encouraged in his new avocation as documentarian.

Right from the get-go, Howard stresses that Jay Z (aka Shawn Carter) designed the Made in America festival to emphasize the diversity of musical genres that appeal to today’s youth, the cultural heterogeneity of the festival’s target audience — and, perhaps most important, the myriad possibilities for success that exist for those willing to do the hard work of making dreams come true. “I believe that every human being has genius-level talent,” Jay-Z insists, adding, “You just have to find what it is you’re good at, and tap into it.”

Jay-Z, of course, can point with pride to himself as a living (and singing) object lesson in the fulfillment of the American dream. Indeed, “Made in America” includes many scenes  — perhaps a few too many — in which the hip-hop icon, record producer and business entrepreneur takes Howard on a guided tour of his many and varied accomplishments.

But for all Jay-Z’s undeniable charisma and role-model value, Howard’s documentary is more enlightening (and, yes, entertaining) as it offers interviews with the roadies, back-up musicians, food vendors and up-and-coming performers who view the concert as a foothold on a ladder, not a payback to a community. “I like money,” one pointedly notes. “I don’t have a lot of money, so I like money.”

Howard also gets a few laughs by including critical comments from an elderly apartment-house resident who lives near the concert site and complains about the “bang-bang” racket. (Don’t worry: She winds up enjoying some of the softer sounds.)

And while many of the actual musical performances are  foreshortened by cutaways to backstage footage — Gary Clark Jr. is just starting to blowtorch his way through some soulful blues before he’s rudely interrupted — Howard gets fascinating interview material from the likes of Skrillex, the Hives, Janelle Monae (who’s quite affecting as she describes the reason for her black-and-white fashion statements on stage) and Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels, surviving members of the seminal rap group Run-DMC.

Simmons shares a funny and revealing anecdote about his initially underwhelmed response to “Walk this Way,” the Aerosmith rock hit that Run-DMC covered (despite Simmons’ reluctance) back in the day. It’s somewhat surprising that, in a pic devoted to musical diversity, little mention is made of the subsequent 1986 Aerosmith/Run DMC music video (briefly excerpted here) that helped smash down walls at a time when MTV wasn’t quite so multicultural itself.

But never mind: The opportunity to hear Simmons and McDaniels tear through “It’s Tricky” is sufficiently thrilling to compensate for any sins of omission.

As its bigscreen Toronto premiere amply demonstrated, this docu’s production values — especially lensing, editing and sound — are world-class. Even after its Showtime showcase, “Made in America” might attract respectable crowds in limited theatrical play.

Film Review: ‘Made in America’

<p>Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Mavericks), Sept. 7, 2013. Running time: <strong>93 MIN.</strong></p>

  • Production: <p>A Showtime release and presentation in association with Imagine Entertainment, Jay Z and Participant Media of a Brian Grazer production in association with Marcy Media and Radical Media. Produced by Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Steve Stoute, Justin Wilkes, Jonathan Silberberg.  Co-producer, Sara Enright. Executive producers, Shawn “Jay Z” Carter, Paul Chibe, Diane Weyermann, Jeff Skoll, Erica Huggins, Jon Kamen,  Sidney Beaumont.</p>
  • Crew: <p>Directed by Ron Howard. Camera (color), Salvatore Totino; editor, Joshua L. Pearson; sound, Dan Flosdorf;  associate producers, Jacqueline Brewster, Kristin Jones, Meredith Kaulfers, Mike Martin, Sarah Namias, Gina Paradiso, Stephanie Ridenour, Christopher Scherer;  assistant director, Gregory J. Smith.</p>
  • With: <p>Jay Z, D’Angelo, Dirty Projectors, Gary Clark, Jr., The Hives, Janelle Monae, Jill Scott, Kanye West, Miike Snow, Odd Future, Passion Pit, Pearl Jam, Rita Ora, Run-D.M.C., Santigold, Skrillex. </p>
  • Music By: