Rise and fall of hip-hop legends
By David Malitz
Friday, July 15, 2011
Controversy has swirled around “Beats Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.”
As the documentary about the genre-defining hip-hop group made its way through the film festival circuit, director Michael Rapaport (yes, that guy who has starred in countless 1 1/2-star movies and quickly canceled TV shows) and member Phife Dawg were very visible in its promotion. But the group’s de facto frontman and biggest star, Q-Tip, was nowhere to be seen.
And he wasn’t just staying silent — he was vocally critical of the final product, which portrays him as something of a villain.
The lines are drawn early on in “Beats,” which is surprisingly tense and combative given the overwhelmingly positive and playful music in the band’s catalogue. But that makes what could have been a sappy, fanboy loveletter a compelling look at the group’s inner workings.
The movie begins with the band’s formative years in Queens during the late-’80s and early-’90s, a truly vibrant time in which artistic exploration and commercial success weren’t contradictory. But the band’s tumultuous 2008 reunion tour gets just as much screen time, which makes for a surprisingly pulse-quickening narrative. Even as the band implodes, “Beats” flows as smoothly as Q-Tip on “Verses From the Abstract.” It’s the tension between the group’s core members that really propels the film forward.
In the opening minutes, when Phife discusses his lifelong collaboration with Q-Tip (the two were friends since early childhood), he calls it a “love-hate” relationship. It quickly becomes clear which side viewers are supposed to take.
On one hand you have the fun-loving and feisty Phife. He’s excitable, always-smiling, raspy-voiced and very tiny. (“The five-foot assassin with the roughneck business,” he raps in perhaps his most memorable line on the band’s hit “Buggin Out.”) Phife is a sympathetic figure who we see struggling with diabetes. Then there’s Q-Tip, the suave frontman with the movie star good looks and talent to match. He’s the group’s unquestioned creative engine who comes across as part genius, part control freak, part jerk.
But as the film progresses it’s worth asking: How much of a bad guy is Q-Tip, really? This question and conflict are at the heart of “Beats,” and make it much more fulfilling than a simple victory lap celebrating the band’s unimpeachable legacy. In getting to know the band members, we might not like what we see, but it does give a better understanding as to why Tribe became one of hip-hop’s greatest acts.
With Q-Tip, Rapaport shows a detail-oriented perfectionist who lives and breathes music. On tour, he can be found digging around in the corners of record shops in every city. He gives hyperspecific breakdowns of how he creates samples. He’s not interested in much more than being the best artist he can possibly be, and he demands — sometimes unfairly — the same from everyone around him.
Phife says that sports, not music, is his greatest passion and seems most in his element when reeling off his top five point guards. He admits to being late for recording sessions and not even writing his verses until the subway ride to the studio.
First-time filmmaker Rapaport shows admirable restraint in going overboard with praise. He lets a stream of A-list stars do the fawning, every word of which is deserved. Often, there aren’t even words. There are multiple instances of acclaimed producer Pharrell Williams simply throwing up his hands when he can’t find enough praise.
Some of the reunion footage, including dressing room arguments and on-stage dust-ups, may be tough for fans to watch. By 2008, diabetes has taken such a toll on Phife that he’s barely mobile. Yet Q-Tip cuts him no slack. He’s heartless. Of course, if he were any other way, the group probably wouldn’t have been worthy of a documentary in the first place.
Contains some objectionable language.