Commentary: Infomercial. TED Talk. Stand-up act. ‘Beastie Boys Story’ did not impress our critics
From their early days spitting rap anthems to the untimely 2012 death of founding member Adam Yauch (also known as MCA), “Beastie Boys Story” spans the band’s decades-long career in a two-hour documentary released Friday on Apple TV+.
Surviving members Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (Mike D), who cowrote the film with director and producer Spike Jonze, narrate and host the production, which is fashioned like a stage rendition of their 2018 memoir “Beastie Boys Book.” The former bandmates tell the tale of “three kids that met and became friends and did all kinds of crazy stuff together for over 30 years,” as Horovitz puts it in front of an audience at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre, where the movie was filmed last year.
But is this mixed-media ode to the Beasties a sure shot? Times pop music critic Mikael Wood and television critic Lorraine Ali pass the mike during a discussion about this love letter to New York’s triple threat.
Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) and Michael Diamond (Mike D) join director Spike Jonze from their separate coronavirus quarantines to talk “Beastie Boys Story,” which captures their blazing days with the late Adam Yauch (MCA).
Wood: As a lifelong Beastie Boys fan, I was happy to take the nostalgia trip this movie represents — especially in the second month of quarantine, when you’re grateful to take any trip at all. But it’s essentially the same journey — from the guys’ scrappy hardcore roots to their breakthrough as frat-rap knuckleheads to their rebirth in the alt-rock 1990s — that’s recounted in the Beasties’ book, with the addition of videos that play on an enormous screen behind Diamond and Horovitz to punctuate various parts of the script.
For sure, Jonze — who worked with the band for years, including on their iconic “Sabotage” music video — has a certain flair in the way he presents those images. I loved some of the moments when he’s got Mike D and Ad-Rock gazing up at younger versions of themselves, looking chagrined by their immature behavior or bobbing their heads to an old song of theirs. It reminded me of a knockout Frank Ocean performance the director was involved in a few years ago at FYF Fest, which got a similar emotional energy out of having real people interact with digital ones.
Ali: Even though the film didn’t really promise a lot of new revelations, I’m also a Beasties fan, so was game to take a trip back to their obnoxious beginnings (No! Sleep! Till Brooklyn!!!). Hardcore punk, hip-hop, rock, alternative — they weren’t any one thing, because they pulled from so many different scenes, styles and decades. And they always evolved. I was hoping this film would capture that frenetic energy, but it doesn’t, and that’s largely because of the clumsy interactive theater construct.
The setup of Mike D and Ad-Rock onstage, recounting their story to a live audience and introducing clips and photos is awkward — and not in an ironic, so-corny-it’s-Beastie way. It’s unclear why they chose the approach, given how much footage there is of the band and of the artists, time periods and genres they cite as inspirational. Jonze could have done a narration-free film off the abundance of documented interviews, shows and studio time. But since Yauch is gone, maybe that’s why it was important to have the guys tell the Beastie story?
Wood: It can feel like you’re watching a glorified TED Talk. With that in mind — and before we get into the Beasties’ self-mythologizing — do you think this thing justifies its on-screen existence?
Ali: Not really. To me, their stage banter is not so much TED as it is a mixture of an infomercial, like “Sounds of the ‘70s” or “Soul Classics,” and a goofy stand-up routine. Maybe the idea was for the guys to spoof those formats, which would make sense, given their history of satirizing the cheesiest bits of American pop culture. But the presentation is like a side show that distracts from the Beasties’ story and legacy, so it ultimately defeats its own objective.
Wood: If it’s an infomercial, what’s the band selling?
The doc pretty explicitly frames the Beasties’ journey as a slow process of moral enlightenment. Horovitz and Diamond talk at every turn about how glad they are to have moved past the misogyny and cynicism of the beer-chugging “Licensed to Ill” era; at one point, Horovitz recites the lyrics to their song “Girls,” savoring each painful detail with a disapproving grimace.
In part, this is their way of acknowledging Yauch’s role as the band’s clear thought leader; it was his awakening — as reflected in a song like “Sure Shot,” where he famously said, “The disrespect to women has got to be through” — that led the other two guys into the light. I was moved throughout to see how much Mike D and Ad-Rock looked up to — still look up to — their late bandmate (who in his filmmaker alter ego as Nathanial Hornblower probably would’ve livened up “Beastie Boys Story”).
Ali: I love that you used “moral enlightenment” in a discussion about the Beasties, and it’s true that this doc does show that progression. Also, the reverence and respect for Yauch; honoring him as a singular creative force, upstanding human and beloved friend is what this film does best. It chronicles how his foresight, risk-taking and curiosity were at the core of the Beasties’ evolution.
Wood: At a moment when artists are expected to pass the wokeness test, though, all the talk of having wised up also feels like an exercise in brand management — an infomercial, as you say, advertising the years of emotional work they’ve done. Yet even as Diamond and Horovitz are atoning, you can’t help but notice how much they blame Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, their first manager and first producer, who they say were determined to turn the Beasties into “a cartoon rap version of an ‘80s metal band.”
Which may well have been the case. But a deeper, more thorough documentary on the group might’ve sought a response from those two — not to mention from Kate Schellenbach, the Beasties’ original drummer, whose mistreatment by the band is described repeatedly, albeit not by her.
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Ali: I think the film reveals that Mike D and Ad Rock haven’t matured with their music. I know, using “mature” and “Beasties” in the same line is asking for it, but the doc is so great at capturing the group’s growing pains from “Licensed to Ill” to “Check Your Head.” It’s them deciding what they want to be — or maybe what they don’t want to be, which is a white-boy rap novelty. The theater audience claps loudest when the doc plays tracks off that 1992 breakthrough record, because you can hear the phenomenal transformation. It’s all you need to understand that astounding creative leap.
If only there was more of that and less of Mike D And Ad-Rock cracking funny about old footage of them with Don Cornelius on “Soul Train” or whatever wacky 1980s moment. From the stage, the men reenact a phone call with their agent via role playing (Ad-Rock tells Mike D he’s broke after the disappointing sales of “Paul’s Boutique”), and it’s cringe-worthy. We know they’re clowns. It’s right there in the old videotape. Let’s move on. They have more trouble conveying genuine emotion about a bygone moment or offering unscripted insight into what we see on the screen above them.
And why ask them to, unless there’s another reason for the construct here? Which brings us back to what they’re selling. Perhaps there’s an Apple TV+ version of “Desus & Mero” — “D & Rock” — in the works? Or maybe it’s that every other group from the era, from N.W.A to the Wu-Tang Clan, has celebrated their own story in a doc — and now it was simply the Beasties’ turn.
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