Film Review: Made in America

The unlikely team-up of rapper/businessman Jay Z and filmmaker Ron Howard doesn't result in odd-couple fireworks. Try familiar yawns instead.

By now, everyone's familiar with the old Hollywood saying about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers' double act: "He gave her class, she gave him sex appeal." If one were to amend that characterization to fit the new concert documentary Made in America, which finds hip-hop icon Jay Z buddying up to director/actor Ron Howard, it would probably read: "Jay gives Ron edge, Ron gives Jay legitimacy." Granted, it's not as if the Brooklyn-born rapper previously (and sometimes still) known as Shawn Carter really needs to have legitimacy conferred upon him by a Hollywood mogul. A titanic force in the music game for three decades now, Jay Z has successfully expanded his brand into the worlds of fashion, real estate and sports, creating an empire that's valued at, by some estimates, upwards of $500 million—handily lapping the director's reported $140 million net worth.

Nevertheless, in the eyes of a certain demographic—many of whom are in Howard's age bracket—Jay Z's bona fides as a businessman (as opposed to merely a purveyor of "that rap music") are likely viewed with skepticism. Given that, enlisting Howard's aid to plug his newest venture, an annual Philadelphia-based music festival called "Made in America" that launched in 2012, was yet another smart business move on Mr. Carter's part. After all, buttoned-up investors and older concertgoers might not know who this "Jay Z" fellow is, but everyone loves and trusts the guy formerly known as Opie and/or Richie.

The partnership benefits Howard as well, in that it allows him to tap into a younger audience—viewers who have never seen “Happy Days,” Splash or even “Arrested Development”—by playing the part of the Dorky Dad Who Really Gets It. It's a role that the graying director embraces to the hilt. Trailing his subject around as Jay Z surveys the behind-the-scenes set-p for the maiden "Made in America" festival (the movie only chronicles its 2012 launch; a 2013 show followed and the 2014 edition will be held on August 30-31 in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles) and checks in at some old Brooklyn haunts, Howard maintains a respectful distance, as if he's simply happy to be part of the entourage. Howard's also affably paternal in his onscreen appearances, whether he's getting an impromptu DJing lesson from electronica artist (and dead ringer for Corey Feldman) Skrillex or patiently tolerating rising rap star Tyler, the Creator's penchant for pulling faces for the camera during their brief interview. And to further prove just how "with it" he is compared to the other fogeys of his generation, the director interviews an elderly Philadelphia resident who lives next to the festival site and doesn't much care for the noise these kids listen to nowadays. Although Howard refrains from rolling his eyes into the lens, you can almost hear him thinking, "See? At least I'm not this uncool!"

So yes, Jay Z and Howard both emerge as winners from their odd-couple collaboration. The losers, on the other hand, are the audience, who are required to sit through a bland, superficial promotional piece that's occasionally punctuated by equally bland concert footage. Made in America represents Howard's first stab at a documentary, and the finished product reveals just how ill equipped he is to work in this particular field. The best documentary filmmakers have an inexhaustible fascination with the people or topics they're filming, not to mention the temerity to ask rigorous, probing questions. It's perhaps not a huge surprise that Howard's knowledge of hip-hop history and Jay Z's own career is clearly limited—what's more damaging is that he doesn't seem especially interested in learning anything about this milieu. Granted what appears to be full access to Jay Z and other performers at the 2012 "Made in America" event (including the surviving members of the pioneering rap outfit Run-D.M.C. and inventive singer/songwriter Janelle Monáe), Howard allows them to essentially repeat huge chunks of their Wikipedia entries without digging for any deeper insights into their creative processes or the strategic ways they've managed their careers.

The lack of any substantive commentary on the latter point is especially problematic considering that the organizing theme of the film involves the struggles of modern-day entrepreneurs to make their mark on an economy where success seems harder and harder to come by. To underline that point, Howard peppers the film with interviews with such "ordinary folks" as a concert food vendor, who talks about her dreams of raising enough money to get her food truck up and running. These snippets are supposed to complement the story of Jay Z's own rise to fame and fortune through a combination of skill, luck and good old-fashioned hustling, but it's a forced equivalency that buys into the same up-by-your-bootstraps narrative that the movie initially seems interested in questioning, if not debunking outright. For a filmmaker who has never exactly hidden his progressive views, Howard has gone out of his way to make a movie that's downright conservative in its hearty endorsement of the ever-elusive American Dream.

Made in America's confusion about its own message might be easier to overlook if there were some great music to drown it out, but the titular concert—or what we're shown of it anyway—is surprisingly lackluster, up to and including Jay Z's perfunctory closing-night performance. As a rock doc, the film isn't even close to being in the same league as Woodstock or Stop Making Sense, let alone Dave Chappelle's Block Party, a modern-day classic of the form that was undervalued by almost everyone (myself included) upon its initial release. The harsh reality is that Made in America, both the festival and the movie, is a business strategy first and a creative endeavor second. It's out to satisfy the bottom line, not our eyes and ears.

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