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article imageReview: Jay-Z struts his musical ambitions in Made in America documentary Special

By David Silverberg     Sep 7, 2013 in Entertainment
Concert documentaries are not often remarkable. But Ron Howard's Made in America dazzles at almost every turn as he chronicles Jay-Z's massive 2012 music fest in Philadelphia, which brought together dozens of disparate acts.
What happens when the Woodstock of Pennsylvania takes over downtown Philadelphia? It was an experiment long-time director Howard couldn't resist filming, resulting in Made in America, debuting at the Toronto International Film Festival.
In 2012, hip-hop legend Jay-Z had an idea for a music fest corralling various genres on to one stage over Labor Day weekend. So he invited EDM stalwart Skrillex, rock band Pearl Jam, hip-hop all-stars RUN-DMC, singer Jill Scott, Swedish indie faves The Hives and many more. Jay-Z admits the goal of the fest is to give America a truly American experience, a buffet of culture birthed from different origins, and thus breaking down any divides between those genres' fans.
Concert documentaries can feel ho-hum: one shot of performance footage bleeds into the next, with talking heads explaining how hard it is to pull off a festival of this scale. Howard includes the usual scenes, but the angles he gets and the access he's granted...few docs could accomplish what Howard succeeds in shooting: a documentary that reads like a short story collection.
There's the story of a cook raising her child on her own, trying to pump out enough food to make her goal of $3,000 daily. There's the story of a group of black youth promised a chance to perform on a side-stage at Made in America. There's the story of a stagehand huffing on cigarettes while he explains how the recession bit him hard and why this kind of fest can feed his family for weeks.
Of course, Jay-Z gets the most airtime but Howard shows him as less than the showcase act than as the maestro; Jay-Z is obviously delighted to amass all these various acts for one fest, and it's not just about him rockin the mic. Howard lets us see the Jay-Z charm that has made him one of the most respected musical talents in the past decade.
At times, though, Made in America feels like it's trying to do much: profile Jay-Z and his grand plan; delve into the everyday Americans managing the minutiae of the fest; interview musical acts about their rise to fame; and capture at least two minutes from every act. The editing pares down the interviews nicely, but a bit less footage of performances could've let us know more about the attendees. That's the one area Howard didn't touch, which makes it feel like he just wanted to profile the names associated with festival's organization instead of the people rejoicing in its success.
As far as concert docs go, Made in America will win over any music fan or advocate for the arts. It demystifies the festival format to let us see how the cogs make the machine work so seamlessly.
More about Jayz, Made in America, Tiff, Toronto, ron howard
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