Critics Pick

‘Beastie Boys Story’: Film Review

Spike Jonze directs a film version of the Beastie Boys' 2019 stage-show memoir, in which Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond prove themselves infectious raconteurs of their white-kid-turned-king-of-rock hip-hop saga.

Beastie Boys Story
Atiba Jefferson/Apple

A year ago, Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond, of the Beastie Boys, premiered an extended theatrical evening in which the two got up onstage and chronicled the band’s 30-year history, from soup to nuts (pun intended), with photographs, TV and film clips, home videos, animated doodads, and other archival tidbits flashing on a screen behind them. The event, which premiered in Philadelphia, was staged by Spike Jonze, who had directed several Beastie Boys videos, notably the epochal ’70s-cop-show prankfest he laid over the big beat of “Sabotage.” Jonze approached the show as if it were the live-theater version of a documentary — the key difference being that Horovitz and Diamond wrote out what they were going to say beforehand, reading their recollections off a teleprompter (with a good deal of joshing spontaneity) and shaping it all, with the assistance of Jonze, so that the evening had the personalized flow and detail of a memoir.

Beastie Boys Story,” which drops this Friday on Apple TV Plus, is the filmed record of that stage show. It was shot at the grandly refurbished Kings Theatre in Brooklyn (the interior of which now resembles a more baroque red-and-gold version of Radio City Music Hall), and though the show doesn’t feature any full-on musical numbers, in its cheeky smashed-beer-can and MTV-video-shot-in-my-rec-room way it feels like it could almost be a companion piece to “Springsteen on Broadway.” It’s one more saga of older-and-wiser pop stars (here in their early-to-mid-50s) filtering their tales of the rock ‘n’ roll circus through everything they know now. The evening is dedicated to the third Beastie, Adam Yauch, who died of cancer in 2012, and he remains a major presence, not just in the clips but in the complicated affection of his comrades’ memories.

Do the Beastie Boys, of all pop stars, merit a soulful, ruminative, and — for all its jokes and jabs — disarmingly sincere looking-back portrait? The answer, it turns out, is a hundred percent yes. Horovitz and Diamond poke fun at everything, including what they describe as their own limited intelligence, but the truth is that these two are inspired raconteurs, with no pretensions except for the ones they’ve earned — like their desire, in the late ’80s, to make their second album, the commercially anemic but now critically revered “Paul’s Boutique,” into a record that would push the envelope of hip-hop aesthetics.

And yet, looking at these two now, you might almost not recognize them. As a kid, Horovitz was like the missing link between Jerry Lewis and Eminem; he now looks closer to Anthony Weiner. Yet he wears his spiky graying hair with elegance, and Diamond is as low-down lanky as ever. The real difference is that they’re beyond any remnant of their old Beastie Boys persona: the psychoid Bowery Boy rap goofballs they pretended to be, and maybe for a time were, when they were Ad-Rock and Mike D, prancing about the stage and tossing their shouted-out rhymes back and forth in an endless and relentless B-boy chant. (They were like one hip-hop hydra with three white-kid heads.) Occasionally, in “Beastie Boys Story,” one of the two will slip into the old personality (“Whoa! We openin’ up for Kurtis Blow? Dat’s def!”), and it’s like a suit of ancient clothing they haven’t taken out of the closet for years.

You could say that every rock star plays a role, but in the case of the Beastie Boys the role-playing was impish and layered and cultural and ironic in a way that can still make your head spin. As Horovitz and Diamond tell it, they were New York teenagers who met each other at shows by Bad Brains and the Misfits and originally envisioned themselves as punks. In the early clips, they have that baby-faced glower you see in the drug-addled urchins who haunted the L.A. hardcore punk scene. In 1983, though, they heard the light when they plugged into “Sucker M.C.’s” by Run-D.M.C. From that moment on, Run-D.M.C. were who they wanted to be. They studied the seminal rap trio’s songs and videos, their clothes and sneaks, and every photograph they could find of them.

Which isn’t so different, in its way, from the Beatles idolizing Little Richard or Hall and Oates wanting to be soul singers. But the world the Beasties deigned to enter was powered by the pulse of street authenticity. Were the Beastie Boys poseurs? In a sense, that was the very premise of the Beastie Boys. (When they did open for Kurtis Blow, they were heckled from the audience with yells of “Menudo!”) Their compulsive clownishness was, on some level, a way of acknowledging that they were middle-class white kids who couldn’t pretend to be street-hard, so instead they were going to be the ultimate brats. They were poseurs who knew it, and meant it, and meant it so much that, in a cockeyed way, they turned the pose into a theater that became reality.

There are good yarns about how they met Rick Rubin when he was an NYU student from Long Island, his tiny dorm room jammed with giant sound equipment (and a bubble machine!). Diamond impersonates Rubin and Russell Simmons to great effect. The Beasties were still high-school kids reading primitive rap lyrics off scraps of paper the night that Rubin and Simmons met at Danceteria and decided, then and there, to launch the label that would become Def Jam. Simmons predicted that the Beasties would be the biggest hip-hop sensation in the world — but not because he was in awe of their colossal talent. He simply knew that white-kid rappers had goldmine potential as much as the Osmonds did piggybacking on the Jackson Five.

“Beastie Boys Story” is an enticingly irreverent memory-lane ride, with lead-in titles like “Chapter 4. Earlier we mentioned a song that we thought had changed everything. And it had, in a way. But this is actually the song that changed everything,” and moments like the one where Jonze, talking through a mic at the back of the theater, razzes Horovitz for saying “That was some crazy shit!” (a phrase that now sounds impossibly corny).

Horovitz and Diamond are funny and fascinating discussing how they created the earthquake that was “Licensed to Ill” in 1986. They claim that “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” was written as a satire of frat-house high jinks, and that when they showed up on the first night of their tour in Missoula, Mont., the audience was now full of those people, who took it as a straight-up anthem. (When I used to blast the song at top volume, it never occurred to me that it was satirical.) The album went through the roof, and suddenly they were superstars — and this was now their fan base. That tour, with its dick that came out of a giant box at the end, was an explosion of excess, ’80s irresponsibility, and (in its way) night-after-night discipline. It built them up and burned them out, to the point that when Simmons wanted them to record a follow-up album in the same spirit, they weren’t up to it, and their deal with Def Jam collapsed.

So did their finances, but not before they rented a house in the Hollywood Hills, from Marilyn and Alex Grasshoff, that was full of her old ’70s clothes, which they turned into surrealist fashion statements. They signed a deal with Capitol Records and hooked up with the Dust Brothers to record the sample-based collage epic “Paul’s Boutique,” only to learn that by the time the formally ambitious (but, to me, scattershot and remote) album was released, their original moment was over; no one cared. They had to reinvent themselves, and did, building out their Zeppelin-meets-rap-delinquent grooves to win back their audience and find a whole new slate of fans who weren’t from party central.

“Beastie Boys Story” is less seamless, but more personal, than a classic documentary. Horovitz and Diamond are infectious company, and the film does a meticulous job of presenting the evolution of Adam Yauch, who was always on the edge of technology (it was his idea to tape-loop “When the Levee Breaks”), as well as postmodern pranksterism. (We see giddy highlights of Yauch’s pop-up appearances as Nathaniel Hörnblowér, his curly-orange-bearded, lederhosened Swiss video-director alter ego — notably Hörnblowér’s interruption of the 1994 MTV Video Awards.) Yauch also became the band’s George Harrison figure, pursuing a mystic connection with Tibetan Buddhism that led him to organize, in 1996, the largest series of rock concerts for a higher cause since Live Aid.

Near the end, Horovitz has to sit down and choke back tears as he talks about his late friend, and part of what’s so moving is that we realize the Beasties, through more than three decades, never suffered that curse of ego that makes bands fall apart. The three took breaks from one another (especially after the first album), but they hung in there, they evolved together, and after starting off as a novelty act they made themselves over into true musicians, keeping a sonically awesome rap power groove going that resonates to this day. The name of the band was coined by Yauch, who said that “beastie” was an acronym for Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Inner Excellence, a phrase that, according to Horovitz, makes no sense. Actually, it made perfect sense: The Beastie Boys expressed (and still do) the triumph of recklessness, which was becoming, more and more, a prized sensation. Did they personally have an appetite for destruction? Let’s just call them the bad-boy messengers.

‘Beastie Boys Story’: Film Review

Reviewed online, April 18, 2020. (In SXSW Film Festival.) Running time: 119 MIN.

  • Production: An Apple TV Plus release of a Fresh Bread, Pulse Films production, in association with Polygram Entertainment. Producers: Jason Baum, Amanda Adelson. Executive producers: Mike Diamond, Adam Horovtiz, Dechen Wangdu-Yauch, John Silva, John Cutcliffe, Peter Smith, Thomas Benski, Dan Bowen, Sam Bridger, Michele Anthony, David Blackman, Ashley Newton.
  • Crew: Director: Spike Jonze. Screenplay: Adam Horovitz, Mike Diamond, Spike Jonze. Camera: Autumn Durald. Editors: Jeff Buchanan, Zoe Schack.
  • With: Adam Horovitz, Mike Diamond.
  • Music By: The Beastie Boys.