Attention, music fans: Judge Clark Douglas will be playing on the Leftovers Stage at 6:00 AM.
Dream it. Do it.
"I believe that everyone has genius-level talent locked away inside them," Jay-Z muses at one point during Ron Howard's new documentary. It's the sort of statement that sounds warmly inspirational for a moment, until you think about it and realize that it's completely false. Jay-Z says a lot of things like that over the course of the documentary, which seems oddly appropriate given that Made in America is an aesthetically appealing yet ultimately empty flick.
The doc highlights the creation of Jay-Z's Made in America music festival (well, it's officially dubbed the Budweiser Made in America Festival) which debuted in 2012. The fest was held in Philadelphia, and brought together a wide variety of talent from a wide variety of musical genres: Janelle Monae, Skrillex, Pearl Jam, Drake, Chris Cornell, Jill Scott, Passion Pit and Jay-Z himself were among the performers. By most accounts, it was a stellar festival, but one of the biggest problems with Made in America is that it wants to pretend the event was something genuinely momentous. Howard acts as if bringing together a host of musicians from different backgrounds is a noble and groundbreaking thing, but that's how the bulk of music festivals are organized these days. Also, despite whatever Jay-Z may say about his noble intentions, this is fundamentally a business endeavor. As such, Howard's film plays more like a 90-minute infomercial than a real music doc.
The relatively brief running time also becomes a problem due to the movie's narrative schizophrenia. At different points, it wants to serve as a profile of Jay-Z, as a concert film and as an examination of the diversity present in modern popular music. All of those options are valid approaches, but each one ultimately feels short-changed. The musical performances aren't given enough breathing room for the film to work on that level, as we're given one or two minutes of stuff from each of the main performers featured in the film. The interviews with those musicians feel similarly surface-level; PR fluff which the assorted performers trot out in tired fashion (only controversial rapper Tyler, the Creator brings a spark of unpredictable tension to the proceedings). Howard doesn't involve himself in the finished film too much, but his questions and observations seem curiously bland.
Made in America (Blu-ray) at looks and sounds okay, though there's never enough style to permit it to shake that "slick informercial" vibe. Detail is exceptional throughout, though some of the footage captured is a little rough-looking. It's certainly not as polished or dynamic as the best concert discs I've seen, but again, this isn't quite a concert doc. More baffling is the fact that a simple, ordinary Dolby 5.1 Surround track has been employed, which prevents the music from sounding as crisp and dynamic as one might expect. It's a solid mix under the circumstances, but I really don't understand why a lossless track wasn't included. No supplements have been included, either, as pretty much all of the behind-the-scenes info you would want is in the doc itself.
Despite my complaints, Made in America certainly isn't an unpleasant viewing experience. It's filled to the brim with good music and interesting musicians, but the assorted pieces just don't add up to much. It will make a perfectly tolerable piece of lazy-weekend Palladia programming sometime soon, but I can't really recommend seeking it out. If you have the money and the time, consider just going to the festival instead.
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