A feature-length documentary on Jay Z's beer-funded Philadelphia music festival
In 2012, the rap producer-turned-branding expert Steve Stoute brokered a deal between Jay Z and the American brewing giant Anheuser-Busch. The makers of Budweiser would bankroll a two-day festival to be held in Philadelphia, which Jay would headline and curate: it was called Made In America, a phrase the brewer has trademarked. The Oscar-winning director Ron Howard was drafted in – pun possibly intended – to make a feature-length documentary, and this sporadically absorbing, occasionally amusing and consistently perplexing film is the result.
Howard has apparently wrestled with the conundrum at the heart of his task – how do you make art out of something that is really just an exercise in aligning various commercial interests? – but chosen to ignore it. Consequently, his film stumbles upon its important truths by accident.
Although the cover gives the impression that this is a Jay Z concert film, there’s little more than 10 minutes of him playing live. The majority of Hov’s time on screen is interviews, in which he hymns self-determination and says he’s unexceptional. “Every human being has genius-level talent,” he claims at one point.
Fine coverage of sets by The Hives, Janelle Monáe and the excellent blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr vie for top billing with backstage footage. Tyler, The Creator makes faces as Howard asks questions; Skrillex gives the director a DJ lesson; the cameras follow Rita Ora – who is signed to Jay Z’s label – all the way back to London. It’s left to the erudite and passionate Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels to explain why his artform is so important (“Music succeeds where politics and religion fail”).
Howard also follows a trio of Philadelphians through the festival weekend. A caterer who is relying on the event to kick-start her mobile taco business, a promoter trying to get Philly newcomers onto the bill, and a jobbing stagehand discuss life on the brink of debt, yet not once does Howard address the ironies of them doing so as part of what is, ultimately, a 90-minute advertisement for beer.
As the A-listers agonise over the ailing American dream (“Politics has become like bad weather,” says Eddie Vedder, adding that ordinary Americans “deserve clear skies”), the film stays silent on the reasons for its own existence. The way they all talk about “giving back”, you might think Made In America was a free festival, yet the cheapest two-day tickets cost $135 and the artists were paid well; Vedder’s band, Pearl Jam, reportedly got $2 million.
Last month, Jay Z announced that this year’s Made In America – it has become an annual event – would be staged in both Philadelphia and Los Angeles. “I’m not a businessman – I’m a business, man,” he once famously rapped. It’s a line that should be kept in mind when watching this entertaining but disingenuous film.