'Made in America' by Ron Howard: Magic and too much talk

Director Ron Howard and Jay Z (Shawn Carter) during the filming of the documentary "Made in America."
Director Ron Howard and Jay Z (Shawn Carter) during the filming of the documentary "Made in America." (RadicalMedia / Showtime)
Posted: October 11, 2013

It's as close as you can get to a showbiz slam dunk. Get Academy Award winner Ron Howard to train his cameras on the inaugural Made in America musical festival in Philadelphia in 2012.

Jay Z as impresario and headliner and a lineup of performers that is both eclectic and stacked - what could go wrong?

Well, your director's eyes could be considerably larger than his mouth. That's not necessarily a liability for a filmmaker, but in this case, it makes for an incongruous and indulgent documentary.

There is a great deal to enjoy in Made in America (Friday at 9 p.m. on Showtime): splendid and stirring images of the city, interesting interviews with artists like Pelle Almqvist of the Hives, Miike Snow's Andrew Wyatt, and Santigold, who recounts her father's rough, up-by-his-bootstraps life in Philadelphia.

The performance footage is absolutely magical throughout. Some of the highlights include Janelle MonĂ¡e doing a kicky and kinetic version of "Tightrope," an operatic display by local girl Jill Scott, and Eddie Vedder alternating lines with a roaring, rain-drenched crowd on Pearl Jam's "Corduroy."

If only Howard was interested in hearing people sing. But he's far more concerned with hearing them talk . . . and talk . . . and talk.

That's fine when he's conducting multiple interviews with Jay Z in Philadelphia and in Brooklyn. Made in America provides a clear window into the rapper as man and as artist and spells out Jay Z's expansive vision for the festival.

But you'd trade all that in a heartbeat for another moment like the musical finale, as Jay and Kanye West collaborate on "Ni***s in Paris" just before fireworks erupt over the Art Museum.

And here's a memo to the film editor: The interminable interviews with the pioneering members of Run-D.M.C. could be excised without a hiccup. Both rappers, Joseph Simmons and Darryl McDaniels, seem to be filibustering the film.

Some of Howard's detours are worthwhile. Several segments, for instance, are devoted to Nicole Zalewski, one of the local food vendors on the Ben Franklin Parkway, a single mom who is trying to refurbish a tattered taco truck.

Howard also finds his way into the living room of Lillian Fowler, an older woman whose apartment overlooked the Made in America enclosure and who offered a contrarian's opinion of the festival.

But the director seems determined to force the event to conform to some preconceived notions about common folk trying to scrape by in tough economic times. Apparently this struggle could be easily overcome if, like Jay Z, we would just listen to our personal creative muses. We're all superstars, people!

Wake up, Ron, and smell the Budweiser. The giant beer maker, whose heavy-handed sponsorship was inescapable for attendees, doesn't exist in the film. There's no clue as to what a thoroughly corporate event this was.

Though painfully brief, the vibrant footage of acts like Passion Pit, D'Angelo, Dirty Projectors and Gary Clark Jr. on stage indicates that Made in America could have been a magnificent concert film. Instead, it's a pompous, overly earnest documentary, striated with flashes of brilliance.


MOVIE REVIEW

"Made in America"

Premieres 9 p.m. Friday on Showtime.


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4552 @daveondemand_tv

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