Diversity is the driving ideological concern behind both Made in America and Made in America, the 2012 Philadelphia music festival that the film documents, as Jay-Z, the event’s creator and headliner, and director Ron Howard conceive of the two-day fest as an icon in miniature of a new American dream, one of constant cross-cultural exchange among performers, employees, and audience. For Jay-Z, this means curating a show featuring as many disparate musical acts as possible—Run-DMC, Skrillex, D’Angelo, and Pearl Jam, among others, all share the same stage—and expounding at length on the role of music itself as a great connector. It also prompts Jay-Z to reflect on his own relationship to the American dream. In his interviews with Howard, the rapper seems both humbled by his massive success and in total control of it—and if the film errs on the side of aggrandizing him, it’s only because he clearly courts such treatment.
Howard, meanwhile, takes on the complicated task of chronicling the concert itself as well as interviews with both the performers and other people involved with the festival. The bulk of attention is paid to the all-star lineup Jay-Z has amassed, with over a dozen musicians gamely chatting about creativity, community, and their own personal trajectories. Made in America spends as much time backstage (and elsewhere) as on stage; concert footage supplements and frames the interviews, creating a dialogue between how each performer conceives of their work and the music itself. The result is a patchwork quilt of raucous live acts and struggle-and-success stories, entertaining even as it grows somewhat monotonous by film’s end, with individual segments ranging from emotionally poignant (Janelle Monáe explaining the heartrending inspiration for her stage outfits) to giddily bizarre (Skrillex giving Howard a crash course in DJ-ing).
The relationship between these segments and the briefer interviews conducted with stage hands, caterers, and security guards is tenuous and lop-sided. The film spends much more time with its celebrity subjects than the less gregarious employees, but the frustrations and dissatisfactions articulated by the latter are more immediately compelling. This intermittent juxtaposition between Jay-Z’s exultant conception of nationhood and wearier perspectives on post-recession America suggests a sharper, braver film only teased at by Made in America. If the festival is indeed a microcosm for 21st-century America, it’s because those who’ve “made it” and those who haven’t are briefly occupying the same space, and their perspectives inevitably clash as much as they cohere. Unfortunately, Made in America shies away from the conflict that gives its subject a pulse: What could have been a spirited dissection of Jay-Z’s optimistic enterprise is instead merely an advertisement for it.