By Brian Ives
“Made In America is a bigger idea than just a concert.” Jay Z isn’t short on ambition, but in a landscape that also includes Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, can another “destination festival” — even one curated by Jay — really be more than “just a concert?” Ron Howard’s Made In America documentary, about the Philadelphia festival’s first year (2012) doesn’t quite answer the question, but it does look at the event from a number of angles. Starting with Jay Z’s own.
Howard earnestly asks, “So how did you go from the Marcy Projects to where you are today?” The answer is, as all Jay’s fans know: “Hip-hop!” Jay takes Howard back to the Marcy Projects, in full view of his 40/40 club at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. They visit his old apartment (it doesn’t seem quite so “hood” anymore), and the legendary MC even plays with the resident family’s infant.
A few other artists tell their stories: Janelle Monae explains that her black and white stage attire is a tribute to her parents: her janitor mother, her post office step-father and her father, a garbage man. They wore uniforms to work, and so does she. Rita Ora describes performing at the age of six for an audience that included Prince Charles, and deciding that singing was her life’s mission. Santigold talks about her ex-gang member father who later started his own law firm, and her mother who grew up picking cotton in the south and became a psychologist.
There’s a few other story lines: that of Nicole Zalewski, a food vendor who needs to gross a lot of money at Made In America to put into her new business: a taco truck. If she isn’t successful, the single mother faces tough consequences: she won’t be able to pay her rent. Stagehand Jesse Duer also gets a good amount of screen time, but doesn’t have as compelling of a story, his hard-working ethic is admirable and he’s likable. There’s also the local artists who are told that they can perform on a small stage, which later gets deleted from the festival’s plan, and the promoter has to give them the bad news.
And then there’s local elderly resident Lilian Fowler, who lives in the apartment complex right near the event; she can see and hear it from her window. “Jay Z: he just got married, didn’t he? I know what’s going on!”
“Yeah, you do!” the man who once played Opie Taylor on The Andy Griffith Show responds sweetly. She adds “I don’t always like it, but I know what’s going on.” Uh-oh.
Howard follows up with: “I’m finding people really excited about this Made In America festival. How about you? Is it particularly…”
“Particularly annoying!” she barks, making references to what she calls “bang bang” music. Howard doesn’t ask what, exactly, this means. “I know this is a new generation, new music, (but) you should have a variety of music, not just the ‘bang bang.'”
Later, Howard talks to Tyler, The Creator of Odd Future, who is likely on Ms. Fowler’s “bang bang” list. He gives a tour of the Odd Future bus, and points out that Made In America is, in fact, different from other festivals: “There’s a lot of black people. Usually at festivals there’s no n****s.”
He also gets a lesson in DJing from Skrillex. Jay Z later says “The EDM music that people are dismissing as a fad, it’s the music the next generation are claimin’. Kids don’t want to listen to their dad’s music, they need to be on the cutting edge of something new.” He stopped short of actually saying that hip-hop is, to many teens, their dad’s music.
There’s a lot of great performances included: Santigold’s “LES Artistes,” Gary Clark Jr.’s “When My Train Pulls In,” Janelle Monae’s “Tightrope,” the Hives’ “Take Back The Toys,” D’Angelo’s “Devil’s Pie” and Pearl Jam’s “Corduroy” and “Better Man.” Another great performance was Jay Z with surprise guest Kanye West doing “N***s In Paris.”
It seems rare that anyone finds fault with any project that Jay Z is associated with (other than Josh Homme of Queens Of The Stone Age, who had a few words about the man following this year’s Made In America). So it’s worth pointing out what is missing from the documentary: (1) Any reference to the fact that Soundgarden’s Chris Cornell pulled out of the festival just hours before it started, and instead performed at a benefit for President Obama. (Gary Clark Jr. filled in). (2) Any reference to President Obama’s PSA, recorded especially for the festival, that was aired during Jay’s set. (3) Any behind the scenes of Jay’s rehearsals with Kanye – and the rest of Ye’s G.O.O.D. music crew (Common and Big Sean both performed during Jay’s set). And most of all, (4) any reference at all, except for a few seconds of footage, of Jay’s onstage appearance with Pearl Jam for a mashup of their “W.M.A.” with his “99 Problems,” which gave the festival its biggest news story and it’s most transcendent moment.
Howard wrapped up the story lines nicely: Ms. Zalewski made money, the local artists ended up performing after all (and then debated over whether or not they actually cried after meeting Beyoncé following their performance) and of course, Made In America returned to the same location in Philadelphia this year.
Oh, and cranky Ms. Fowler? She was won over by Philly heroine Jill Scott’s operatic performance. “Now see, that is not bad! I’m very opinionated , but sometimes I find I like people if I give them a chance.” Maybe Made In America is more than just a festival. Watch the Made In America documentary Friday night (October 11) on Showtime at 9 pm ET.