Sundance Review: 'Beats, Rhymes and Life' documentary doesn't miss a note
Michael Rapaport probably wouldn’t have been much of a director if he didn’t love hip-hop so much, but the execution of his directorial debut “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” expresses just that.
Tribe – who broke up originally in 1998 but have taken up a handful of reunion shows in recent years – made a bold move in allowing Rapaport to suss out their creation and implosion. This, not just because the director is better known for acting, or that three of the four ATCQ’s members still have active music careers at stake; but because this was a world of wounds easy to re-open. And, in part, that’s what makes the documentary great.
With a large help from animators and the obviously tireless work of editor Lenny Mesina, Rapaport establishes early a unique rhythm and timbre to his film. It's like the film itself is hip-hop, or at least shadows it in style. Like sampling and scratching, he cobbles together 25 years of interpersonal history with verses of animation interstitials, archival photo stills, music breaks, talking heads and live concert footage. And still the story shakes out in one cohesive piece.
The lens largely turns on childhood buddies Q-Tip and Phife Dawg -- back in the day when they were teenagers -- and the time it took them and cohorts Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad to get serious about their deal with Jive and going mainstream from their realm in Queens. The beginning of the film is like an upbeat mosaic, a celebration of a certain place and time in hip-hop, in the late ‘80s, with insights from those who were there -- like DJ Redlight, De La Soul, Prince Paul. Then onto the supergroup of positive hip-hop thinkers in Native Tongues Posse, where baby-faced video of Queen Latifah and the Jungle Brothers bounced around to celebrate the positive motion of hip-hop.
Fast forward and its dudes like Common or Mos Def or Kanye West jumping up to rap Phife’s parts as Q-Tip delves into his solo career but still enjoys the legacy of his Tribesmen. It’s linear, and it hurts, going from beginning to bitter end (and to somewhat less-bitter end).
The kick in the stomach is when Phife discusses his various medical issues due to childhood onset diabetes, from the offhanded demonstration on measuring out insulin, to the emotional apex when his wife offers up one of her kidneys as his fail. Jarobi – who followed Phife down to Atlanta after the group started descending into its breakup – breaks down into tears discussing his friend’s deterioration.
It’s these moment of vulnerability and fire that Rapaport was thankfully able to cull from these veterans. For example, at one point when Phife is asked what he thinks of today’s hip-hop, he reveals, “I could do with or without it,” giving pause to the modern hip-hop lover. Q-Tip steams as he says the whole group will only take the stage together again if they get inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. In discussing his unraveling friendship with ailing Phife, he calls the emotive situation “faggoty” without restraint. And it feels like crap when he says it. It’s what Phife, after the film screened, called “real.”
But you also see ATCQ as originators and creators, crafting the beat behind “Can I Kick It?” or dumbfounding rhymes like “Let me hit it from the back, girl I won't catch a hernia / Bust off on your couch, now you got Seaman’s Furniture.” They light up and they’re funny as hell, with their one-liners punctuated with a bass drum a beat later, or their laughter cut off like the click of a phone.
The concert footage could’ve had a better handle on sound and the angles. I like the big camera pans on the seas of arms waving in the air, during Rock the Bells in 2008 and in Japan and Australia in 2010, where the love could be felt for a stadium mile. The other original live shots could've used a lot more fine-tuning.
But all in all, Rapaport’s film shows a real joy and passion, for ATCQ’s music and the culture they helped to create. Where some documentaries fail in creating a connection between the viewer and the subjects who used to be “in love” so to speak, this one doesn’t accelerate through all the necessaries to get to the breakup and subsequent heartache of each. The veteran hip-hop act could’ve merely been portrayed as an abstract (pun intended) idea more than they are humans with creative and emotional needs, but “Beats, Rhymes and Life” doesn’t miss a note.