Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest

1 Aug

Title: Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Michael Rapaport
Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad
MPAA Rating: 
R, language
97 min
Major Awards: –

IMDb Rating: 
Rotten Tomatoes: 


The last film I had seen before I went into this one was Project Nim, a totally wonderful documentary from the terrific James Marsh, so I decided I should try and continue that streak and watch another documentary next, one I had been looking forward to a great deal. That of course was Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a A Tribe Called Quest, the look into one of the most seminal bands in the history of the hip-hop genre. This was directed by Michael Rapaport, and I have to give a lot of kudos to this guy right here, because it’s his vision and his storytelling that made this film as absolutely compelling as it ultimately was.

I say that because Mr. Rapaport, who’s an actor who makes his directing debut with this one, is clearly a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest, that’s incredibly obvious watching this documentary, and that love he has for this legendary band shows, as he pays an adoring tribute to the band that helped reinvent a genre and you just feel the energy and passion behind the music. But, and this is the biggest compliment I can pay Mr. Rapaport, as big a fan as he might be, he’s a storyteller first and foremost. And whereas a fanatic could’ve easily chosen to just focus on the golden years of the band, the creative highs, and made a pretty damn decent documentary out of it because god knows there’s a lot of good things to say, Mr. Rapaport acknowledges there were a lot of dark times during the band’s run, and as he starts dissecting the deeper psychological issues behind them we get one of the most fascinating looks at the inside of a turbulent period in an artistic partnership since Metallica: Some Kind of Monster.

And that whole troubled dynamic is exemplified by Mr. Rapaport in the focus he gives to Phife Dawg and Q-Tip, the group’s leading men, and two polar opposites of each other. One, Phife Dawg, is the easier one to like, a man with a bad case of diabetes, which threatened the group’s future at one point, and who is just a totally sweet and mild-mannered sort of guy. While the other, Q-Tip, is a guy cold and calculating where Phife Dawg was human and impulsive, a musical genius with great style who was the authoritative force behind one of hip-hop’s most influential outfits. And that whole dynamic is one that Mr. Rapaport smartly uses to illustrate the history of the band, he shows how celebrated they so rightly were, driven by the perfectionism of Q-Tip, but also shows how that same perfectionism started becoming more and more like some sort of bullying as Phife Dawg got sicker and the feelings within the band got worse, it’s just a super rich and complex story to tell and it’s so powerfully told by Mr. Rapaport that it becomes a must-watch documentary not just for lovers of the group or genre, but for pretty much everyone who wants a look at an artistic relationship through great highs and lows.

The members of A Tribe Called Quest, by the way, have expressed some mix reactions to this documentary (Phife Dawg likes it, Q-Tip not so much). You shouldn’t take that as some indication that Mr. Rapaport presented a rather inaccurate portrayal of their career, but instead that is the biggest praise Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest will get from the group itself, because that probably means that he got the whole story maybe too right, and they probably weren’t all that thrilled about seeing some of that dark stuff on the big screen. And I love that even though Mr. Rapaport was given so much access to his subjects, ones he so clearly admired, not only did he not make a documentary that only praised them, but also the interviews with the members don’t feel as though they’re putting on a false front to portray on camera something they’re really not, but instead feel real to a point I really wasn’t expecting with a documentary as all-acess as this one was.

If there was one thing I can say I wished Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest showed more of, and I’m being very picky here, was some explanation about their musical style and how that came to be. Because I’m actually a huge fan of the group and I wanted to hear more stories about how they came to their style, a more playful sort of rap at a time when hard gangsta rap was all the rage, and how their perfected their style, one which had perfect jazz influences and a killer groove. I wanted more backdrop to that, but that’s just me being picky, because even though you get interviews with some great people, including the always awesome Questlove of The Roots, and they do talk a bit about their influence it’s always more as a well-deserve praise and not so much as an exploration of their sound.

But still, that above was me just being super picky, because this is still one seriously incredible documentary, one that shows a really unstable power dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, two individuals who with their very different traits formed one of hip-hop’s most influential and legendary outfits. You see these guys rehearsing for their reunion tours, one they made in 2008 mostly to get money because Phife Dawg’s medical bills were quite substantial and was filled with tension, and the other last year which was in a better atmosphere. And even though you see them playing together after breaking up, you can’t help but look at them in a certain way after learning so much about what went on behind the scenes, and we have Mr. Rapaport to thank for that.

Grade: A-


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