Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: JAY Z: Made in America

Directed by Ron Howard this engrossing multi-faceted documentary chronicles the 2012 debut of the Philadelphia-set “Made in America” music festival, organized and headlined by Grammy-winning hip-hop artist JAY Z (Shawn Carter). Given very little prep time before immersing himself in the energy of the musically and cultural diverse event, Howard proves his chops as a documentarian. He gives us an enlightening and entertaining backstage pass, interviewing not only the assembled roster of talented musicians but also the everyday Americans employed to cater and run the event. Through JAY Z’s personal connection to the city, we are taken around Philadelphia, and shown the sites of importance in the establishment of his towering career. Jay Z: Made in America premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, before screening on Showtime. It is coming to Australia for a Special Event Season through Transmission Films from March 20

There is an extraordinary range of artists admirably assembled by JAY Z for this concert – from veteran acts like Run-DMC and Pearl Jam, to alt-rock groups Passion Pit and Dirty Projectors, to hip-hop sensations Janelle Monae, Santigold and Rita Ora, to acquired tastes like Odd Future to Skrillex – who each attracted their unique audiences, but no doubt gathered some new fans.

JAY Z expresses the belief that “every human being has genius-level talent” and it is up to the individual to tap into that potential and find out what they are best at. He believes that there are many avenues to success, it just takes dedication and commitment and the courage to bounce back from failure and rejection even stronger than ever. He is living proof of having fulfilled the ‘American Dream’, as are many of the other artists we meet. Carter has become a role model - a one-time street thug who turned it all around and dedicated all of his time and energy to making music. A lot of young people in Philadelphia (as an example) look up to him. He was one of the pioneers of his generation; and he has witnessed a new generation (guys like Skrillex) change the music landscape again. Janelle Monae humbly talks about her parents, hardworking blue-collar workers. She talks about her performance uniform of black and white, and where that idea stemmed from. Swedish group The Hives discuss what influenced their music in Sweden, and Andrew Wyatt of Miike Snow is very open about the psychological problems that plagued his early career, and how he remained driven to make music.
Joseph Simmons and Daryl McDaniels of Run-DMC and Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam offered more veteran insight, a generation older than most of the other artists interviewed. McCaniels was especially vocal about the artists that inspired him, and the lyrics that taught youngsters about the very streets they lived on. They hilariously recap the process of making one of their music videos, which involved Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Howard visits Simmons in more personal surroundings, eliminating the musician persona and capturing him simply as a man living his life. Having not performed together for over a decade it is a special moment when Simmons and McDaniels take the stage together.

Howard doesn't just interview the talent, but a stagehand, a group of security guards working the show, and one of the venue caterers. These personable, hardworking regular people discuss their professions and their contentedness with their lives, thankful for the job they have and its challenges and opportunities. It adds a terrific dynamic to the film.
My only negative comment about the film was that I craved more concert footage. It could have been a great concert film on it’s own - the photographed footage was exceptional - but admirably JAY Z and Howard made the effort to make it more than just a concert film, but an investigation into how these artists made their dreams come true, and how others have worked hard to make it in America in their own way. But still, some of the performances were too entertaining to leave. Gary Clark Jr. was crushing 'When the Train Pulls In' , but Howard disappointingly took us backstage mid-show. More of Clark, Pearl Jam and the great Janelle Monae and less of, say, Odd Future, would have resulted in a slam-dunk.
JAY Z is evidently a man of charisma, imposing stage presence and strong business sense, with an inspiringly optimistic view of the people of America. His journey to success is woven into Made In America, and it is a story worth learning about. It is an emotional moment to see him met with rousing applause as he makes his closing address on the second night. Pal Kanye West joins him on stage and seeing these two monsters of hip-hop performing together is an awe-inspiring sight to leave on.
My Rating: ★★

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