“We all have the same struggles and the same dreams,” says Jay Z at the start of Made In America, Ron Howard’s concert film about the rapper’s inaugural Budweiser Made In America Festival. Jay Z’s statement isn’t true, of course. But at least he and Howard seem to have the best of intentions at heart when it comes to both the festival and the film. Not that good intentions save it from being bombastic and pedestrian at the same time.
The first Made In America festival took place in Philadelphia in 2012. Jay Z’s name for it sums up its premise in a vague, sloganeering way: Numerous music acts of various genres were gathered together under the umbrella of recession-era, “let’s put America back to work” positivity. Howard practically trips over himself trying to simplify and amplify what’s already a dumb, loud idea. In his gosh-wow rush to gulp down every one of Jay Z’s platitudes about togetherness and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps determination, the director might as well be Opie Taylor set loose with a camera crew at Kumbaya-palooza.
Howard appears sporadically throughout the film, often hovering just outside the frame, while he interviews musicians and members of the production crew before, during, and after the fest. His noncommittal presence serves as more of a distraction than if he’d hogged the lens. At one point, dubstep wunderkind Skrillex draws Howard out long enough to give him a quick lesson in DJ mixing (“You’re like a tap dancer, only with your hands!” Howard gushes). Before that, Odd Future’s Tyler, The Creator amuses himself and patronizes Howard while looking clearly bored of the director’s cloud-gathering tangent about storyboards. “This shit is awkward,” Tyler tells Howard, who laughs nervously. To the director’s credit, he leaves in that awkwardness and lets it speak for itself.
It’s in these little interactions—of which there are far too few—that Made In America rises above its self-congratulatory heavy-handedness. R&B artist Janelle Monáe sits in a diner with Howard and speaks with candor about her family’s blue-collar background, and how she sticks to black-and-white outfits onstage as a tribute to the uniforms her mother had to wear as a custodian. A crotchety old woman who lives within earshot of the festival gripes about the “bang-bang music” invading her neighborhood, only to bashfully admit that Jill Scott’s operatic voice is to her liking. And a stagehand speaks bluntly and bitterly about “the 1 percenters” and the rotten core of the American dream. That he’s working for—and talking to—a wealthy man doesn’t seem lost on him.
That sliver of cynicism is worked out quickly. The majority of the film is devoted to concert footage from the fest, most of which is feel-good and upbeat—even when Pearl Jam comes out to sing its 1994 hit “Better Man,” an otherwise glum song that’s livened up when frontman Eddie Vedder steps back from the mic to let the crowd carry a verse. Jay Z’s curatorial hand is competent: His lineup for 2012’s Made In America included not only Monáe, Scott, Skrillex, Pearl Jam, and Hova himself, but other crowd-friendly acts like The Hives, Santigold, and Miike Snow. Kanye West even clocks in for a muscular run through “Niggas In Paris,” his and Jay Z’s hit single from 2011. Howard makes their sets feel grand yet intimate, and the energy level is kept to a steady frenzy. But Jay Z spends much of the film trumpeting his own keen eye for diversity, without acknowledging the fact that as festival bills go, Made In America is utterly unremarkable—and nowhere near as diverse as he claims.
The ultimate fault of Made In America is its indecision. In a scant hour and a half, it tries to be a concert film, a propaganda piece, a bio of Jay Z, a mosaic of incidental character sketches, and some kind of corny motivational PSA. There’s even an egregiously buried lede: The fest marked the onstage reunion of rap legends Run and D.M.C. for the first time following the death of their Run-D.M.C. bandmate Jam Master Jay in 2002. That alone could compose a feature-length documentary, as could any number of dangling narrative threads, many of which involve the everyday people the film purports to care about.
In their shibboleth-strewn attempt to be populist and egalitarian, Jay Z and Howard wind up selling almost everyone short. “Every human being has genius-level talent,” Jay Z proclaims at one point, another bald-faced untruth that sounds convincing coming from the mouth of one of the greatest, richest rappers of all time, and one with such an inspiring story of self-invention. But like Made In America as a whole, it’s mostly a hollow gesture—a case of winners saying that all it takes to win is winning, backed by some good tunes.