Beastie Boys Story Review
During their time together as a group, the Beastie Boys understood the importance of transformation. From frat boy caricatures, to skater crowd cool and festival kings, until they officially disbanded in 2014 two years after Adam Yauch (MCA) died from cancer, their ability to continually evolve ensured they remained relevant. It's a trait Spike Jonze's Beastie Boys Story documentary isn't able to live up to, turning a celebration of their careers into a rigidly told live event, guided by Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) on stage.
The documentary is a recording of the stage show toured by Mike D and Ad Rock over the past couple of years, trimmed down from its original lengthy run-time of nearly four hours to a condensed 120 minutes. The two former emcees hold the spotlight with laid back charisma, keeping the audience engaged as they recall how the group was formed and the highs and lows of their careers, while offering heartfelt tributes to the much-missed Yauch. Jonze is occasionally heard off-camera involved with a few scripted jokes, but the stage very much belongs to the Beasties.
Beastie Boys Story is essentially a trip down memory lane, taking fans back to the late ‘70s when Diamond and Horovitz met Yauch and started making music together. They went from sloppy hardcore punk wannabes to L-plated rappers in awe of the likes of Kool Moe Dee and Run DMC – only to end up sharing a label with the latter as they signed with Def Jam and worked with producer Rick Rubin on "Licensed to Ill". Their chaotic energy was foisted onto an unsuspecting public in 1986, going on to sell over 10 million units. But while “No Sleep till Brooklyn” was supposed to be an ironic joke at the expense of college party boys, their targets ended up becoming fans, and the trio themselves started to morph into the very thing they were supposed to be mocking.
They reflect on their early antics with embarrassment, and as middle-aged men address some of the misogyny now engraved on record forever. Telling the story from their own perspective allows them to honestly face up to old mistakes, keeping hold of their own narrative in the process. However, only hearing their voices robs them – and the wider audience – of discussing the cultural importance of the group. The Beastie Boys are certified hip hop royalty, their debut album arriving hot on the heels of Run DMC’s collaboration with Aerosmith, the label mates both bringing rap to the commercial market. While most die-hard fans will already be aware of that fact, the many other casual viewers tuning in probably will not, and that lack of context is sorely missed.
Mike D and Ad-Rock make for good company for the two hour run time, their 25-plus years of stage experience guaranteeing a strong and calm presence in-front of a fan-filled audience. The stories and anecdotes are well told and good humoured, but the stale presentation is hard to overlook, the format struggling to capture the same energy that comes with seeing it live and in the moment with others in the theatre. For that reason, even during the more sobering moments, there’s a distance that’s hard to bridge.
Personal stories are woven in and out of revisits to the most notable albums in their back catalogue, remembering how they hooked up with The Dust Brothers on the heralded second album, “Paul’s Boutique”, hitting big again with “Sabotage” off “Ill Communication”, and following that up with the equally successful “Hello Nasty”. At times it feels more like a Wikipedia summary than a documentary, but Diamond and Horovitz knit most of it together with confidence.
Given their popularity, it’s a surprise it has taken so long to produce a documentary about the trio, although the same could be said for many of the rap groups and emcees who have shaped the course of modern music over the past 40 years. It's a decent attempt, but while the two surviving members are able to earnestly open up about being part of rap's biggest-selling group, it never really gets to the heart of what made their 29-year recording career so much fun to witness.
Beastie Boys Story is available to watch on Apple TV from April 24.