Sony // 2011 // 97 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // October 18th, 2011
One of the most commercially successful and artistically significant groups in recent history.
Beats Rhymes & Life is a labor of love for director Michael Rapaport (True Romance) and it's obvious throughout the documentary just how much the group's music means to him. For fellow Tribe fans, the film will be worth seeing but will it play for outsiders? More to the point, does it answer the questions that Rapaport says he had when he started making it?
The answers, unfortunately, are no to both questions. It's not that Rapaport's heart isn't in the right place, and despite what Tribe's leader Q-Tip has said since the film's release, the documentary isn't sensationalistic. It's honest and fair-sided in how it depicts the clashes and troubles that have beset Tribe since their inception to their frequent break-ups and reunions. Nonetheless, though it has some great stories and some revealing interviews, it's still not as complete as it should have been.
To be sure, this is an enormously complex story that would take more than one documentary to tell completely. A Tribe Called Quest's first three albums-People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), The Low End Theory (1991), and Midnight Marauders (1993)-were hugely groundbreaking and influential albums that provided an important alternative to the violence of gangsta rap and the boasting of hardcore rap that were then the two most prevalent styles of hip-hop available. Tribe demonstrated that hip-hop could be a real musical art form, one that could encompass songs about love, friendship, humor, and spirituality. Their creativity, however, was rooted in the intensely complicated relationship between their two lead MCs, perfectionist visionary Q-Tip and street-smart, down-to-earth Phife Dawg. Q-Tip and Phife have known each other since childhood and though they formed Tribe with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and rapper Jarobi White, the documentary makes clear that it's their sometimes fractious relationship that gave Tribe's music its spark. Though the group broke up in 1998 after releasing two subpar follow-up albums, they have reunited a few times for concert tours and live performances, although no one, especially the group members themselves, can say for sure if Tribe will ever record another album together.
Beats, Rhymes & Life does a solid job of showing how the group members exist today. While Q-Tip launched a prosperous solo career and has also branched out into acting, Phife has all but left hip-hop behind to follow his passion for sports, acting as a basketball scout. In one of the film's most telling moments, he even states bluntly that his affinity for music is so minimal that he can "take or leave" hip-hop. It's this disparity that manifests itself during Tribe's 2008 reunion tour, as Q-Tip and Phife become increasingly frustrated with each other. This is not a whitewashed documentary-the group members describe, in sometimes shocking honesty, how the group came together, how they created their most enduring music, and how their relationship has changed, not always for the better, as they aged and became famous. After watching Beats, Rhymes & Life, you will definitely have a better understanding of who these men really are.
Nonetheless, there are some significant gaps in the storytelling. For one thing, the film doesn't explain just how groundbreaking Tribe was when they first emerged in 1990. This is touched upon here and there, but when viewers who are unfamiliar with the history of hip-hop see Tribe in their admittedly silly-looking clothes and hear their music, they won't quite understand just what a revelation Tribe's music was back then. Hip-hop was so radically different back in that era and while some of the interviewees, particularly Muhammad, mention that, the fact that this is glossed over so casually is a huge oversight. When artists here from Common to Pharrell Williams of the Neptunes talk about how tremendously influential Tribe's early records were, viewers who weren't following hip-hop then won't necessarily understand why. The documentary shows us Tribe's music, but doesn't really put it in the right context.
An even bigger failing is that one crucial question is left unanswered: why did Tribe break up in 1998? Rapaport states in various places on this DVD that this is a question he wanted to answer, yet he really doesn't do so. There's a brief reference to a tense business meeting with representatives from Tribe's record label, and Q-Tip recalls that after the meeting, he immediately decided to break up the group. What happened at this meeting? Did the other members agree with his decision? This section is so unclear that even with Rapaport's commentary, you won't know any more about the break-up after watching the film than you did before. The break-up clearly had a huge impact on the relationships within the group-you can see it in the conflicts that erupt during the reunion tour-so the fact that it's so sketchily detailed is a sizable failing. This should have been a much more comprehensive documentary, even as good as it is at times.
The extras on the DVD are unfortunately not any more enlightening. Rapaport's commentary is worth hearing because he does explain some of his decisions in how he made the film, although there are still some holes left unfilled. "Bringing Beats to Life" (10:20) isn't about the film; it's really about how the animation that opens the film and is interspersed throughout was done. It's only mildly interesting. "On the Red Carpet at the L.A. Film Festival" (5:12) contains interviews with various celebs and musicians at the film's premiere, as well as all the members of Tribe except Q-Tip. There are some great deleted scenes (25:04) that address some interesting issues regarding the group and its history, although they still don't answer all of the remaining questions. At least the anamorphic transfer and 5.1 surround mix are both solid, although some of the archival footage looks and sounds a bit rough.
Ultimately, Beats, Rhymes & Life is a remarkable documentary, but not an entirely successful one. There's plenty to enjoy about it, especially if you're a fan, but it's hard to imagine that anyone who isn't as familiar with Tribe's music will find it as entertaining. What's more, even fans will have some significant questions left over after watching it. Rapaport deserves credit for trying to tell such a complex story with affection and honesty (even if Q-Tip has since loudly disparaged the film), but this is a documentary that would have benefited from more length and detail in certain places. You should see it, but you'll have to look in other places (see Accomplices section) to really get the full story.
Guilty of not being as comprehensive as it could have been, but let off with
a fine for good intentions.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Official Facebook Page
* All-Music Guide: A Tribe Called Quest