Less music-stuffed but more conceptually ambitious than the average music doc, Ron Howard's team up with Jay Z, "Made In America," films a two-day music festival curated by the rapper and works to turn it into a youth-centered assessment of the health of the American Dream. Over a dozen artists appear, most both on- and off-stage, a diverse crew that both emphasizes the eclectic musical tastes of today's youth and bolsters Jay Z's talk of increasing pluralism American society. Though the lack of focus on a single star may limit its marketability (many of the performances are good, but this is no Woodstock), the doc could work in special-event bookings and would play well on cable.
To everyone's credit, the film doesn't feel like a feature-length ad for Budweiser, the concert's sponsor and initiator of the documentary. (The credits end with a 2013 Anheuser-Busch copyright.) It bears the personality of its maker, an artist whose career has embodied Americana from the start and who understands a film like this can't be serious if we only hear about "making it" from rock stars.
Though Howard's not the greatest interviewer -- he tosses Jay Z softballs like "Did you set out to be a leader?" -- he pursues tangents that wind up paying off: Midway into the event, he goes to a nearby housing complex to visit an elderly woman who's none too pleased with the "bang-bang" music blaring from early 'til late; listening to her deferentially, he eventually finds her warming up. "I'm opinionated," she says, "but sometimes if you give them a chance" those opinions can change.
The film's take on behind-the-scenes action isn't limited to dressing rooms and entourages. It also turns workers doing unglamorous jobs into characters who get more screen time than some of the celebrities. A young cook is gambling on a food concession, hoping she'll make enough on her investment for payments on a taco truck; a stagehand takes us to the home he has to share with roommates and compares his life to that of the One Percent.
Those focused on the music may resent some of the diversions: Janelle Monae is just getting into the thick of her next-gen James Brown business on "Tightrope" when Howard cuts to workers making the fest's logistics flow. She gets more time offstage, though, talking about working-class Kansas City roots and explaining that she wears only black and white onstage because having a uniform reminds her of parents who worked in janitorial and sanitation jobs.
Jay Z aside, the artists who get the most attention here are the surviving members of Run-D.M.C., who reunited for the first time in many years for the show. However big a treat it was for fans to hear "It's Tricky" and "Walk This Way" live, that pleasure pales in comparison to hanging out with Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels individually offstage. An anecdote about the origins of the latter song is both funny -- Simmons says they were baffled by the "hillbilly gibberish" of Aerosmith's lyrics -- and proof that popular music has long been in the business of bringing seemingly opposed cultures together.
Though it's certainly not the Jay Z-centric feature some may be expecting, the film does use his biography as its central follow-your-talent case study. The rapper takes us to the State Street address immortalized in "Empire State of Mind," walking us onto the roof of his old building and looking across at his new one: Brooklyn's new Barclays Center, which has benefitted from his endorsement (if not from the unanimous approval of those who still live in the neighborhood) and contains his 40/40 nightclub.
"I believe every human being has genius-level talent," he says, arguing that the main job is to find what that talent is and focus single-mindedly on it. That may be an easier belief to hold for someone whose own gifts have been so richly rewarded, but Made in America encourages the viewer to agree.