Made in America

UK Release Date 19th May 2014 (VoD / DVD)
Director Ron Howard
Starring Jay-Z
Runtime 90 Minutes
Certificate 15
Reviewer Si
Reviewed 11th May 2014

I once bought a hip hop album. At least I think it was hip hop. I’m not really sure what the difference between that and rap is. It may have been rap. It may have been called The Best Rap Album in the World Ever. Part 2. I can’t remember. The point I guess I’m trying to make is that I’m not exactly current with music and certainly not music that is popular with, you know, the kids. The idea of Ron Howard chronicling a festival put together by one of the biggest hip hop stars in the world proved irresistible though.

And so, Made in America finds Ron in somewhat uncharted territory. Not known for his documentaries (his last movie being the incomparable Senna), quite what switched him on to starting this strand of his career with Jay Z is unclear but here we are. Point of housekeeping, I’m unsure if I’m supposed to spell Jay Z like that, or Jay-Z or JAY Z (as it is in the press release for this), so I’m sticking with the former unless anyone can correct me. Released on DVD and VoD in the UK, it’s a reasonable assumption to make that the producers didn’t think this one quite had the clout on this side of the Atlantic to make it to the big screen. I suspect they were dead on there.

Equally billed between Ron and Jay, that should give you some idea as to who is the star attraction on this one. Howard / Z’s film takes place over two days in Philadelphia as the latter puts on a festival attempting to bring together a wide variety of talent from across the musical, racial, gender, you name it spectrums. Howard presents a large amount of concert footage, alongside snippets of interviews with the performers, a food vendor, an angry neighbour and of course, Jay Z himself. We get an overarching narrative from Jay Z, explaining his ascent from wannabe gang member through to White House attending multi-skilled megastar. Interspersed with Jay’s wonderfully eloquent words are the equally eloquent Run DMC, Rita Ora, Pearl Jam, The Hives, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, Skrillex and many others you likely haven’t heard of.

It’s probably a bit of stretch to call this a documentary to be honest. It’s more like an extended concert with some videos thrown in and some voiceover. Whether this is an issue or not probably depends on your appreciation of the music. On the one hand, it’s great to watch Howard wondering around like a lost dad at his kid’s gig, chatting amiably with the likes of Odd Future (some of the more childlike contributors) but on the other if you’re familiar with the groups, you’ll probably get a bit frustrated by the abbreviated performances.

Where the movie really comes good though is when it discovers its best speakers. Darryl McDaniels of Run DMC fame is a particular gem in this. Eloquent and philosophical from his years in the business, his musings on the impact of music where politics and religion have failed is genuinely inspiring. Equally, Jay Z’s aims for the festival are noble enough, even when swathed in beer branding and a nagging question as the cost of a ticket compared to the all inclusive aspirations ($100 I think, early bird price). But there is no doubt that Jay Z certainly achieves the diversity of acts he was looking for. There can’t be too many festivals that deliberately set out to put this range of acts together. Even the neighbour who can’t stand the ‘bang bang’ music that she hears all weekend can’t help but admit that she does enjoy some of the music.

So what we get is a part documentary, mostly concert movie that very much headlines its producer and gives him plenty of room to espouse his life story and his ethos. Which could be a critical failing in anyone else’s hands and with somebody less charismatic as the headline. Fortunately Ron knows when to poke his nose in and when to let the music do the talking and Jay Z is certainly not lacking charisma. A genuinely likeable guy who seemingly lives as he describes and who has a philosophy that is nigh on impossible to argue with, he is a magnetic presence on screen.

A lot of what makes Made in America is right there in the title, this is very much an American story of striving for diversity in a meritocracy where anyone can make it from the bottom to the stars. It gets away with it because its lead is Jay Z and for all its cheesy ideals, it does find a number of people who genuinely seem to have made it to the top the hard way. Given the sounds on display, it’s kind of a shame that this one didn’t make it to UK cinemas but it’s understandable that it hasn’t, this is a very American movie despite its diversity of talent. That said, if you have any interest in contemporary American music, this is well worth a look, especially so if you have fond memories of Run DMC and Pearl Jam. If nothing else, watching the surviving members of Run DMC bounce out on to the stage to the sounds of ‘It’s Tricky’ is an inspiring sight to behold. The stories behind the music never quite live up to that for a jaded UK audience but then, what does?

Made in America is out on DVD and Vod on 19th May:

VoD

DVD

Check out the trailer here.

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