Ad-Rock and Mike D collaborate once more with Spike Jonze in a colorful & touching documentary.
The story of the Beastie Boys is a monumental one. It encapsulates the history of hip-hop, the domination of MTV on the pop culture landscape, and even modern filmmaking with the help of several landmark music videos.
So it’s fitting that a retrospective storytelling show hosted by the two surviving members, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond, (the third member, Adam “MCA” Yauch, passed away in 2012 from cancer) at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre is co-written, and directed by Spike Jonze, a filmmaker whose career was launched by his collaboration with the group during their career rebirth in the 90s.
Like many of Jonze’s films and Beastie Boys music, the very watchable, emotional documentary, Beastie Boys Story, doesn’t fit perfectly into any genre. It’s technically a music doc but blends together several types. It’s a traditional career recap in the style of a VH1 Behind the Music episode following the standard rock band journey- they meet when they’re deviant punk rock teenagers, form a band, find their sound, make their breakthrough, make dumb financial decisions, get too famous too fast, break up, are humbled, get back together, and reinvent themselves, reborn from the ashes.
It’s also a musical storytelling show, in the vein of Bruce Springsteen’s recent Springsteen on Broadway doc. Ad-Rock and Mike D combine personal stories about music, friendship, and loss, and interweave them with a montage of photos and clips shown on a giant screen behind them.
Like many of Jonze’s films and Beastie Boys music, the very watchable, emotional documentary, Beastie Boys Story, doesn’t fit perfectly into any genre.
The barrage of images and music come together to create a narrative of the group that is self-mythologizing, but also convincing evidence that these three lads from Brooklyn are as essential to hip-hop as the four lads from Liverpool were to modern rock.
Starting with their early days as teenagers in a hardcore band, they quickly developed an original style by combining their love of punk rock pioneers like The Clash and Bad Brains with a brand new genre of music blasting from boomboxes in all five boroughs of New York called hip-hop, developed by iconic groups like Run-DMC.
It also chronicles the first of many lucky encounters with people who bring their careers to new levels, when they’re introduced to producer, Rick Rubin and now cancelled Def Jam records founder, Russell Simmons. Rubin gave their early songs a radio-friendly polish while Simmons sold them to the world like a seasoned used car salesman emptying the lot, resulting in their world shattering first album, License to Ill. Run-DMC may have opened the door for commercial hip-hop, but the Beastie Boys, with their sing-along raps and anarchic spirit, crashed through the wall like a rapping Kool-Aid Man.
By the time we get to the end of their journey as a group, we realize two things: 1. the Beastie Boys rule hard, and 2. they really loved each other. The emotional center of the film is Adam Yauch, who is depicted as the beating heart and musical genius of the group. The grief caused by his tragic death is felt throughout the film, and the doc chronicles how important he was as an artist, filmmaker, and humanitarian in his own life separate from the Beastie Boys’ output.
The other figure that looms large in the film is Kate Schellenbach, an early member of the group who was essential to them finding their voice, but was unceremoniously pushed aside as their career took off in the 80s. The doc sugarcoats the ugliness of getting rid of a woman in order to fit the (at the time) very sexist world of hip-hop, but she is woven through multiple stories in a way that suggests how guilty Adam and Mike feel about the situation, while honoring how important she was in their lives and careers.
Jonze mostly films the show in a straightforward manner. Besides sometimes chiming in with his deadpan voice when the teleprompter stops working or for the occasional, delightful, breaking of the fourth wall, he gets out of the way and lets the two legends do their thing. There’s not a lot of Jonze camera trickery he likes to pull in other live settings, but the film doesn’t need it since the stories and images speak for themselves.
The only disheartening thing about the film is that it has the vibe of a very expensive slideshow put on by a couple of dudes wearing Dad Khakis reminiscing about the good ol’ days. Seeing two middle aged men standing on a giant stage in a grand theater recapping their youth in a very polished, rehearsed manner is what their younger Beastie selves would call “goofy”. Fortunately, a Beastie Boys slideshow is more exciting than most slideshows.
For people who always appreciated the Beastie Boys but never took a deep dive (like this reviewer), Beastie Boys Story is a very fun and educational starting point. Die-hard Beastie fans who have been with them for decades may not unlock any new insights here, but it’s still essential viewing, if only to catch up with some old friends, mourn the friends we’ve lost, and share stories that remind us of how fun it is to create art that makes us feel young and alive.
Beastie Boys Story premieres on Apple TV+ April 24th.