Great musical documentaries are hard to come by, especially in this day and age of pop stars churning out self-congratulatory pseudo-mythmaking with everyone from Justin Bieber to Katy Perry to One Direction all jumping into the sugar-coated, money-driven bandwagon. Very rarely directors of some world-class renown tap into their passion for music and create paeans to their musical idols with panache. Now Martin Scorcese has fulfilled his desires hanging out with rock stars, it’s Ron Howard’s turn to canoodle with rap extraodinaire Shawn ‘Jay-Z’ Carter and his very important mission to bring a two-day music festival in Philadelphia called Made in America and subsequently gave birth to this documentary, which should be re-named to Vote for Jay-Z: The Greatest Rapper in the World. Don’t get me wrong, there’s some noteworthy objective in this music genre collective, but this documentary shortchanges form and function in favour of some crass promotion.
Judging on the dynamics of Howard’s perspective, Jay-Z is front, left and centre of this music doc, bolstering his ostensibly messianic purpose in bringing musical, racial and societal diversity to the economically crippled yet musically engaged crowds of good old urban Philly. Part backstage ‘making of’ commentary, part self-aggrandizing vehicle, one can’t mistake the withering irony that Mr Carter often sounds like a politician off-stage, albeit heavily blinged, purportedly ensconcing a cultural revolution by providing a platform for both has-beens and fledgling artists to give musical love to the hard-up crowd. The irony presents itself that this is the exactly the same populi that bought tickets and gave this bankable rapper worth his dime. Giving Jay-Z his due, what he’s doing is admirable, but it’s hardly revolutionary stuff. Anyone claiming the Budweiser-sponsored festival is groundbreaking obviously haven’t heard of Glastonbury.
The documentary really only comes to its own when it shares its spotlight to other enormously talented artists with lesser egos to stroke. Janelle Monae is quietly touching in her humble and sincere anecdote about the roots of her consistently black-and-white ensemble; Rita Ora gets to shine in her philosophies about fame and success; Run DMC is startlingly eloquent and straightforward about the realities (and trivialities) of the American Dream, and Jill Scott didn’t need any introduction to how talented this woman is, serenading a packed crowd with a divine voice. But never mind all those talking heads, as they seem to serve as either mere fillers or supporting players in a show truly dominated by Jay-Z. Howard even goes so far as squeezing in shots of Jay-Z (with wife Beyoncé close at hand) parting the crowds in slow-motion like a New Testament Jesus. With this in sight, you’re not entirely sure whether Howard, whose style borders on autodidact, is affectionately portraying Jay-Z as a serious cultural icon or visually promoting him as Philadelphia’s next potential city mayor.