Jay-Z and Ron Howard pair for this concert documentary
Oscar-winning director Ron Howard takes music fans inside the world of pop star Jay-Z in this concert documentary shot in 2012, made during a music festival in Philadelphia. Made In America features musical performances by several big names from different genres, including Kanye West, Run-D.M.C., Pearl Jam, Dirty Projectors, Janelle Monáe, and the Hives. Cut around backstage interviews with the music stars and struggling workers on the periphery, Howard uses Jay-Z’s life and career as an inspiring example of the American Dream. It will be entertaining for Jay-Z’s fans but the musical performances are often mere clips instead full performances, hurting some of its entertainment value.
The Made In America music festival was intended to show the unifying power of music, bringing together a diverse roster of musical artists. Jay-Z is the headliner in the show, capping off the documentary with a rousing performance in which he teams up with Kanye West. The Brooklyn-born rapper is also the central focus of the documentary, going over some of his political sentiments and early life. Howard extensively interviews Jay-Z and goes along with him to places important in Jay-Z’s life. While none of the provided information is particularly new to Jay-Z’s fans, the rapper does share his opinions in a fairly candid and open manner.
Ron Howard does make the curious choice to end several musical performances short or cut them up with interviews, blunting their possible enjoyment. Odd Future with Tyler the Creator is giving a lively, energetic performance of their song when Howard cuts away from it for a meandering interview segment. Virtually all of the songs performed in concert are great live versions, full of passion and vitality. I guess it helped that Howard got to cull the best performances out of such a deep roster of quality acts, including Gary Clark, Jr., Passion Pit, Miike Snow, Skrillex, D’Angelo, Pearl Jam, and others.
The best stuff to come from Made In America outside the performances are intimate interviews with the members of Run-D.M.C. and Janelle Monáe. Janelle Monáe talks about her working-class background and struggles before becoming a music star. Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels talks about the music he first heard on AM radio as a child. While other kids in his neighborhood were listening to the Jackson Five, he loved hearing early Folk Rock musicians like Jim Croce and Bob Dylan.
Occasionally working as a hagiography for Jay-Z, Made In America still offers some compelling musical highlights. From rehearsal footage to backstage glimpses, this concert documentary is grounded by its themes of working-class issues and the struggle obtaining the American Dream. It is not something one is likely to watch over and over again but Jay-Z’s fan-base should definitely give it a chance. I would have awarded this documentary a perfect rating if it had included completely uncut musical performances. Its editing style is definitely aimed at a younger audience.
Independent Blu-ray distributor Phase 4 Films gives Made In America a beautiful technical presentation. The 93-minute main feature has some of the best-looking concert video I’ve seen in 1080P resolution.
The standard 1.78:1 widescreen composition sparkles with clarity and definition, presented in a clean AVC video encode averaging nearly 27 Mbps. Some archival footage and a couple of the interviews include lesser quality material, but this is largely a pristine picture typical of modern video.
Sharpness allows excellent detail without obvious artifacts, a rarity amongst concert videos. Made In America has perfect contrast and crisp black levels. While this is not reference material, this is a slickly-shot production by an experienced filmmaker.
For a documentary so reliant on current music, the soundtrack is a bit disappointing. Phase 4 Films has only included a lossy 5.1 Dolby Digital mix at 448 kbps. It does feature heavy low-end and a smattering of surround activity, though the live music is not mixed as elaborately as most recent concert discs. What we get is some nice bass and a nice presence to the music, likely a direct reflection of the original soundboard recordings. One point should be mentioned about Pearl Jam’s performance. The actual vocal recording for Eddie Vedder does not sound as clean as the other stars, it appears someone else mixed Pearl Jam’s segment in comparison to the other singers.
There is nothing blatantly wrong with this audio presentation, though the four stars are more reflective of the quality live renditions than technical prowess. Phase 4 has included optional French subtitles in a white font.
Nothing except a handful of trailers are included as special features. The trailers all precede the main menu.
The Crash Reel trailer (02:28 in HD)
Trailers for The Last Gladiators and Jamesy Boy (03:36 in HD)
Click on the images below for full resolution screen captures taken directly from the Blu-ray. Images have not been altered in any way during the process.