‘Beastie Boys Story’ Gives Voice to the Wild Times of Rap’s Biggest Trio (FILM REVIEW)

[rating=9.00]

It’s hard to see Beastie Boys Story, the new hybrid documentary and live performance film from long time Beastie Boys collaborator Spike Jonze, as anything besides a memorial service.

No doubt, it’s a fun and exciting memorial service, one which perfectly encapsulates the spirit and energy of the Beastie Boys and their oeuvre, but, like any memorial, it’s bittersweet. It is as close to a swan song for the legendary and innovative group, which officially disbanded following the tragic death of Adam “MCA” Yauch in 2012, as we’re ever going to get. Watching it is like watching a eulogy. As much as you rejoice the life being mourned, the undercurrent is one of sadness.

Filmed in front of a live audience, the new film features the surviving Beasties, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, recounting the history of not just their band but their friendship and their continual evolution into one of the most influential hip hop groups of all time. It is a deep reservoir of stories and secrets that serves to honor what was created over the near 30 years of their existence. It serves as a final peek behind the curtain before the curtain is shut and locked forever.

Which isn’t to say that it’s all dour. Beyond anything else, the Beastie Boys were always entertainers. As a group, they knew how to master their space and control the audience as well as anyone has ever been able to. That’s something they still do masterfully. Ad-Rock and Mike D prove themselves consummate story tellers, recounting the ups and downs of Beastie Boy history with humor, humility, and reverence. Here is the legend from the mouths themselves, straight from the source and as true as they could make it.

Watching them, it’s plain to see how great their chemistry still is. After 40 years of friendship and 30 years of being bandmates, that’s no surprise. Older now, and each looking like dads on their way to a meeting with the teacher, they still have an intimate understanding of their strengths and their weaknesses. The story they tell is told not unlike a Beastie Boys song. Mike D sets up Ad-Rock for a punchline; Ad-Rock starts a story that Mike D finishes; Ad-Rock and Mike D working together to make a point.

It’s not dissimilar from their legendary call and response rhyme schemes that helped make them leaders of the hip hop movement and near untouched musical innovators. It’s tempting to wonder what might happen if the two entered the studio again, if not as the Beastie Boys then as something else, but in the eight years since MCA’s death from cancer at the age of 47, that door has been pretty well shut.

Sadly, this is probably one of the last times we’ll see the two of them together in this way. But that’s a big part of the reason Beastie Boys Story is so compelling to watch. Largely serving as a kind of companion piece to their Beastie Boys Book, published in 2018, the stories might be familiar to long time fans or anyone who’s read their exhaustive retrospective. Seeming them together like this, however, and hearing the stories coming straight from their mouths, is about as poignant a swan song as you can expect from the Beastie Boys.

Jonze, who directed the now legendary music video for “Sabotage,” as well as videos for “Time For Livin’,” “Sure Shot,” “Ricky’s Theme,” and “Don’t Play No Games That I Can’t Win,” handles the experimental style of the film as only he could. A large screen looms behind Ad-Rock and Mike D, upon which is projected a series of photographs both rare and familiar as well as clips that run the entirety of their storied career.

Those expecting a traditional documentary are in for a disappointment but it comes together brilliantly. The “live documentary” format magically allows for Beastie Boys Story to feel like a Beastie Boys release. At times, archival interviews with MCA are thrown into the mix, allowing the dearly departed rapper to have a voice in his story and adding even more depth to the presentation.

If I have any complaints about the film it’s that it might not be exhaustive enough. After well over an hour of conversation about the formation of the group and their early days as friends and the history of their first four albums, Licensed to Ill, Paul’s Boutique, Check Your Head, and Ill Communication, Mike D and Ad-Rock gloss over Hello Nasty and then skip over To The Five Burroughs, The Mix Up, and Hot Sauce Committee (part 2) entirely.

Instead, they jump right from Hello Nasty into a deeply emotional eulogy for MCA. Nearing the two-hour mark, one wonders if they were instructed to find material to cut to get the film down. Given how in-depth things are at that point, the jump is jarring and a bit disappointing. It would have been nice to hear more about the process of recording those albums and their hooking up with Mix Master Mike. It would have been great to hear how needed Burroughs was in the aftermath of 9/11. Or the release of Hot Sauce Committee (part 2), the planned first release of a two-album cycle that now serves as the capstone to their wild career.

That said, their tribute to MCA is as moving and emotional as they’ve ever been, with Ad-Rock even having to cede some of his material to Mike D as the feelings overwhelmed him. It’s clear why we’ll probably never get more music from these two. The memories run too deep and the loss cuts too hard. The loss of MCA was more than the loss of a bandmate. It was the loss of a best friend, a brother, a motivating force, and a source of inspiration. Whether we knew it at the time or not, MCA was the beating heart of the Beastie Boys that always pushed them to strive for new heights and innovate.

Perhaps it does us no good to wonder about what we lost or never had. Through Beastie Boys Story we are reminded of all the great work and music they released over the quarter century of their existence, work that still stands to this day. Work that still inspires to this day. Even now, listening to Paul’s Boutique or Hello Nasty feels like listening to music that somehow slipped through time and came to us from the future. Even absent new material, the Beastie Boys live on. We’ll always be licensed to ill. We’ll always have an ill communication.

And so this is it. The final word we’ll probably ever get on that trio of dumb punks who somehow took the world by storm. But what a word it is. Beastie Boys Story is essential viewing for fans of the crew that takes us deeper into their crazed world than we’ve ever gotten before. It’s a memorial for what we lost, a remembrance of what we had, and a deeply moving, intimate exploration and explanation of what the Beastie Boys were. What they were was incredible. And what we have of them will live forever.

Beastie Boys Story is now available on AppleTV+.

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