The summer music festival seems to be very much a yearly European phenomena. Whereas the US does a booming trade in film festivals the summer months go by relatively quietly in terms of large scale musical offerings. With this mind Jay-Z and associate Steve Stoute set about creating their own Glastonbury in the city of Philadelphia. They called it Budweiser Made in America Festival so that they may showcase the true stories of creative triumph and because they really enjoy Bud I presume.
Ron Howard was invited to film the event and interviews with many of the stars of the show. In some cases gaining quite intimate access– we get to see Janelle Malone’s family home and the flat which Jay-Z grew up in. Interviews are conducted with some of the big performers, some though are notable by their absence including Kanye West and Drake. The film flips back and forth between artist’s interviews and their stage shows sprinkled in with Jay-Z explaining his ethos behind the festival. The whole set up feels very reminiscent of Michel Gondry’s documentary of Dave Chapelle’s Block Party that was out nearly ten years ago. The chief difference being that Ron Howard chooses to insert himself into the action Nick Bloomfield style, often heard and seen on camera interviewing the acts. It adds a certain charm to some scenes to see a confessed out-of-his-depth Howard converse with Skrillex and Run-DMC. The highlight of these interactions being the Odd Future sequence after we see the group roam the festival in desperate search of Jill Scott, Tyler the Creator sits down with Howard for an interview that’s both cringe inducing and playfully funny. Howard marvels at Tyler’s sketch book and all round creativity whilst the rapper mugs to the camera seemingly not paying attention. It’s a moment that almost plays like Amadeus. The seasoned veteran seeing himself being replaced by a hugely gifted young upstart. Yeah I just read way too much into it, what of it?
The film plays best when it sticks to showing the music. The aforementioned Odd Future and Jill Scott songs are highlights, with Scott in particular reminding us what a unique voice she really is. The pre-amble to Run-DMC’s performance gives us a rare insight into Rev Run’s business sense and DMC gives an often rambling monologue about the importance of hip-hop to the youth. The couple of songs we get to see though are spirited and the songs sound as fresh today as they did nearly thirty years ago. It’s nice to see D’Angelo performing once more but he turns in a simply shambolic performance of ‘Devil’s Pie’. Pearl Jam’s second night headliner spot looks an impressively mounted affair and Eddie Vedder looks happy to be there but the set up seems to be missing something and comes across as a bit dull. Jay-Z’s set on the other hand though plays both well and as the films climax, despite the first day’s headliner. Kanye is brought out for an encore, the performances are vibrant and catchy. Making you wish you could have been there. But it also makes you wish that there would be a separate DVD release of the whole show.
Ron Howard seems to think he’s doing something a little different with the format, but unfortunately the concert documentary is a tried and tested formula. The films hangs on its interviews which range from inspired and insightful to near embarrassing. The same with the performances some are completely ramshackle others are world-class performances by artists who are at the top of their game for a reason. So in reality Howard has created the exact cinematic equivalent of a festival. Some brilliant moments, some god-awful. Genius.