A music docu that mostly dodges “Behind the Music”-style tall tales or breathless evangelism, Michael Rapaport’s “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” gives the seminal early ’90s hip-hop group as stylish and intimate a treatment as fans could hope for, paying as much attention to the music in question as it does to the characters who made it. Evergreen interest in the group should provide very healthy ancillary, and a theatrical excursion is certainly a possible scenario.
First-time filmmaker Rapaport manages to gain quite close access to his subjects — two band members cry on camera, quite an unusual concession for musicians in this genre — and makes some very smart choices in shaping the footage. Personal revelations are rarely presented for their own sake, but rather to reveal the import that the band members’ complicated relationships have on their music, and the film avoids the de rigueur enumerations of superstar excesses that often plague music docs of this type.
The Queens group always had highly-developed onstage personae, and it’s refreshing to learn that these are clearly outgrowths of their actual personalities: Q-Tip is the artiste, both flamboyant and unknowable; Phife Dawg his garrulous, diabetic sidekick; Ali Shaheed Mohammed the stoic behind the turntables; and Jarobi the friendly cypher.
Proceeding through each of the group’s five albums, the film allows Tribe and a murderer’s row of contemporaries like De La Soul, Large Professor, Pete Rock, Busta Rhymes and the Beastie Boys to make unusually specific commentary on particular pieces. Of particular interest is a scene inside Q-Tip’s home studio, where he produces an obscure Lonnie Smith LP from which he unearthed a key drum sample (“I nearly wet my pants (when I heard it),” he recalls), while group discussion of a particularly rewind-worthy rhyme of Phife’s from “Electric Relaxation” generates hilarity.
Things turn uncomfortable in the later going, as the group breaks up, then reunites, with festering antagonism between Q-Tip and Phife reaching ugly levels. There’s some startling 2008 footage of a backstage blow-up between the two that nearly turns violent, followed by rather vicious post-mortem commentary. Shortly thereafter, Phife’s health takes a bad turn, requiring a kidney donation from his wife.
Rapaport attempts to put a happier face on things at the end, as the group reunites for a handful of shows, but it feels a bit disingenuous, as tensions clearly still remain. The film also pays somewhat scant attention to the group’s final two albums, which is strange as the penultimate one provides the film with its title.
All in all, however, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” is a remarkably thorough examination of the band, and its hopeful end title revelation that Tribe is still on the contractual hook to produce one more record reveals the filmmaker’s clear love for the band.
Archival footage is extensive, with music expertly stitched together by bold-name beat-makers Madlib and Peanut Butter Wolf. Interstitial and opening credits animation sequences are eye-popping.