Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Directed by: Michael Rapaport
It’s always hard to predict what the outcome will be when an actor decides to climb into the director’s chair, but in the case of Michael Rapaport (Higher Learning, True Romance), he has made an impressive debut with Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest. Although he may not seem like the most likely guy to delve into the history of this influential hip hop act, as a life long New Yorker and a big fan of the group, he was determined to put a fitting tribute to them up on the big screen. In the process of shooting the film, however, I think he got a lot more than he bargained for.
Specifically, Rapaport found himself caught in the middle of a decade old feud between MCs Q-Tip and Phife, and in trying to get to the bottom of it, he only seems to have re-opened old wounds. Three of the band’s four members have publicly disavowed the film, and it’s unfortunate that this is the aspect of the movie that seems to be grabbing the most headlines. Beats, Rhymes and Life really isn’t a sensationalist film; it largely focuses on the the history of the band and the extent of their contributions to hip hop. On the other hand, the complex relationships and the friction in the band are precisely what make this something more than just another glossy musical retrospective.
The movie opens with a handful of juicy sound bites taken from interviews with each of the members, but before we can fully digest them or their context, we are whisked away into a colourful and energetic animated title sequence drawn in the style of several of their album covers. So many documentaries nowadays use animated interludes as a quick and easy way to spice up their visual aesthetics to the point where it has almost become a running joke. In Beats, Rhymes and Life, however, the animated titles really add a lot to the film, and tie everything together in a funky little package.
From here the movie takes us back to the beginning, tracing the history of the band and their rise to fame, album by album. It mixes archival footage with new interviews and some live clips, and the editing has a great energy to it that definitely captures the spirit of what was going on in the hip hop scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s. As someone who was a fairly casual fan of the band, it was interesting to hear how they were perceived when they were just breaking out, and how their quirky and unique style started a movement, both in terms of attitude and sound. Their goofy outfits, carefree lyrics, and affinity for sampling old jazz records all left an impression on the people who were there at the time. Interviews with peers such as the Beastie Boys, De La Soul, Busta Rhymes, and The Roots hammer the point home, and while they do occasionally border on the typical ass-kissing you expect to see in documentaries like this, you can also sense the real passion these people have for the music.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that after reinforcing the respect, positivity and the optimism that the band inspired, the second half of the movie goes on to focus on the deteriorating relationships between its members. Perhaps it says something about hip hop culture that even a group like A Tribe Called Quest ultimately gets caught up in this kind of drama… or perhaps it just says something about art and success in general. At times I was reminded of the documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, which follows another team of highly talented and successful musicians struggling to learn to be regular human beings. However, A Tribe Called Quest are not nearly as dysfunctional, and perhaps that is what makes it so frustrating to see them being stubborn and immature with each other.
I feel like Rapaport gives a fairly balanced take on the situation by offering multiple sides to the story, and he made the right decision by refusing to shy away from it. While the subjects never actually seek out therapy, the film does indirectly provide them an opportunity to try and work things out among themselves. Unfortunately, it also gives them an opportunity to take jabs at each other too, and at this point it doesn’t seem like they are any closer to resolving their differences.
As sad as it is, however, the second half of the movie is ultimately what makes the documentary a memorable one. Phife’s struggle with diabetes gives the film some emotional weight, and recent events give the film a sense of immediacy usually lacking in a documentary looking back on a band’s career. I think these are the elements that will make the movie most interesting to an outsider. Even if you aren’t a fan of A Tribe Called Quest or hip-hop in general, you can certainly get caught up in the band member’s personalities and the strange dynamics between them.
Overall, this is a strong non-fiction entry that goes well beyond mere catering to fans; it is an audio-visual treat that traces the history of ’80s and ’90s hip hop while also underscoring some of the struggles that come with fame and creative collaboration. Sony Pictures Classics will give it a theatrical release this summer, which is great news because the movie simply looks great on the big screen. The one thing I wish Michael Rapaport would have explored a little more is the idea of the so-called “death of hip hop”, which is lamented by so many people throughout the film. Perhaps he just thought the topic was obvious and spoke for itself — then again, he probably didn’t need to start even more drama with this already controversial directorial debut. — Sean
Recommended If You Like: Rock the Bells, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, Style Wars