Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The Jay Z-curated Made In America Festival is a two-day concert in Philadelphia sponsored by a Belgian-Brazilian beverage company, boasting a mix of rock, hip-hop, and pop acts. But to director Ron Howard, it is a metaphor for the American Dream.
That’s quite ambitious, Opie.
Howard chronicles the inaugural year of Made In America, headlined by Pearl Jam and Hova himself. (The show was held for a second time this Labor Day Weekend with Beyoncé and Nine Inch Nails headlining.) Populated with performances from a diverse range of acts—from the superstars mentioned above to a reunited Run-D.M.C to the lesser known names of Santigold and Janelle Monáe—Made In America never wants to be just a straight music documentary. It doesn’t linger on performances, cutting back and forth from the stage to the back of it and beyond.
Some of the performances translate better than others. Blues-rocker Gary Clark Jr. doesn’t benefit from going up against flashier acts, like dubstep wünderkind Skrillex who (as a producer said) must perform from a spaceship, or Jill Scott, who doesn’t get the chance to sing a full song, but kills an operatic breakdown. Yet it’s the superstars, Pearl Jam and Jay Z, who give the most memorable performances, namely Kanye West’s surprise visit for “Niggas In Paris.” Howard doesn’t break ground when it comes to shooting each performance, often letting the music speak for itself.
Rock stars aren’t Howard’s only subjects. He chooses to focus on a struggling food-truck vendor, a roadie, and an elderly woman who lives near the venue and isn’t pleased that her neighborhood is about to be taken over by undesirables. The first two interviewees broaden Howard’s scope beyond performances and scenes of already-rich people talking about how hard they worked to get where they are. But they also hammer the message so hard, even their minimal screen time feels redundant. Howard, though, has never been one for subtlety. The annoyed neighbor, however, who decries the constant “bang bang” music is one of those documentary subjects who justifies cutting away from the music.
Playing interviewer and inserting himself into several scenes, Howard is not an invisible director. Part of the charm of Made In America is watching the still-sweet Howard discuss dealing drugs with Jay Z or talk to Tyler, The Creator about pretty much anything. He’s not out to get the hard-hitting interview. At one point, the documentary leaves Philadelphia to center on Jay Z’s involvement with Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, across the street from his old haunts and where his 40/40 Club now resides. It’s a puffy distraction from the concert at hand. Yes, Jay Z is a leader. He’s a cool guy who has accomplished a lot. That’s established; do viewers really need a reminder? The surface bromides of meritocracy are each artist’s main talking points, but the real fun comes in smaller moments, like watching Jay Z rehearse or Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons nervously pace around the stage, worried that not everything will go as planned.
The best music documentaries make it seem like what they’re capturing has heft, an importance beyond a couple of songs classily shot, and that the audience is catching a moment in culture that likely won’t be reproduced. The same can’t be said for Made In America. Jay Z isn’t doing God’s work, and while he is an important cultural figure, there’s something that rings false about the documentary’s theme, if only because the constant “work your ass off and get what you want—only in America!” platitudes can come off as cloying. At the same time, though, listening to Janelle Monáe talk about why she only wears black and white—to pay homage to the uniforms she and her parents had to put on everyday to go to work—is a fascinating glimpse into an artist who falls squarely into Howard’s vision of the festival. In Made In America, though, Monáe gets to wonder aloud if her signature tuxedo shirt can be taken in a bit at the waist.