Forgoing depth and complexity for cheap nostalgia, Beastie Boys Story has little of the vitality that characterised the band’s music. By Christos Tsiolkas.
Beastie Boys Story
Beastie Boys Story, directed by Spike Jonze and released through Apple TV+, begins with the ecstatic aural assault of “Sabotage”, the most famous track from the band’s 1994 Ill Communication album. It’s a wise choice. “Sabotage” came out just as grunge music was ascending commercially and it seemed absolutely right that the Beastie Boys – Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Adam “MCA” Yauch, three white New Yorkers whose music had been indelibly influenced by rap and hip-hop – had created a piece of music that both mocked and celebrated the punk teenage angst of grunge. Yet “Sabotage” isn’t purely white, even though its brutal guitar strut is directly lifted from heavy metal. It made you want to head straight to the dance floor. You didn’t just want to bang your head. You also wanted to dance. In Beastie Boys Story, hearing it first up conjures an immediate sense of goodwill towards the movie.
The film is a documentary that ostensibly charts the history of the Beastie Boys. It also serves as a tribute to Yauch, who died of cancer in 2012 and whose passing effectively meant the end of the band. What differentiates the movie from many other music documentaries is that it is also a live concert film. This time, however, the gig is not musical but consists of Diamond and Horovitz, on stage, telling the story of the band while photographs and video clips are projected behind them.
Beastie Boys Story was filmed over three nights in a theatre in Brooklyn in front of clearly loyal and enthusiastic fans. As Diamond or Horovitz calls out the name of a track, of a rapper they idolise or a musician they have worked with, the crowd breaks out into loud hollering and applause. At first, I thought Jonze might be using this recurrent cheering as a device to make explicit the theatrical conceit of the movie, and to make the film viewer share in the camaraderie of the theatrical audience. But the exuberance never lets up, and as the crowd seems to have no discretion when it comes to their appreciation – cheering pedestrian and second-rate performers as wildly as they do the groundbreaking and the innovative – the effect is to dissipate the initial warmth I experienced on being reminded of the Beastie Boys’ music. Those cheers, the cutaways to the adoring audience, and the clubhouse banter between Horovitz and Diamond on stage and the unseen Jonze in the pit raise the suspicion that what we are about to watch is an exercise in nostalgic reconstruction.
Although the initial set-up suggests that what is going to be revealed about the band’s history will be confessional and brutally honest, the storytelling details are often banal and reductive. A clear intention is to make amends for the brattish misogyny that was part of the Beastie Boys’ initial success, culminating in the inflatable giant penis and the crotch-grabbing antics that were part of their stage act when touring with their first album, Licensed to Ill. Much more powerful, though, are the photographs we see of them as teenagers in the punk hardcore band The Young Aborigines, with Kate Schellenbach (later of Luscious Jackson) as drummer. As middle-aged men, Diamond and Horovitz are clearly ashamed of having been so ready to dump their friend for the pursuit of fame. But a white-girl drummer didn’t fit into the plans that their record label, Def Jam, had in promoting them as a white-boy hip-hop band.
While the implication is that much of that marketing was directed by label manager Russell Simmons and producer Rick Rubin, the Beastie Boys were willing to be led. The narrative core of the film becomes about their awakening to the excesses and treacheries of fame. It is only when they relocate from New York City to Los Angeles, and begin working with the Dust Brothers on their second album, 1989’s Paul’s Boutique, that they reconnect with their love for music. They make decisions not only to follow their creative impulses but also to find ways to retain financial and artistic control of their output.
Diamond and Horovitz are personable and gracious narrators, but they’re not actors. Diamond is clearly uncomfortable throughout. He evinces a similar discomfort in the footage we see of him as an adolescent, yet as a musician he found a way to generate friction and excitement from his nervous energy. Whether drumming, playing guitar or shouting out his vocals, he’s dynamic. He doesn’t know how to utilise those skills as an actor, and his presence is dull. Horovitz, who has acted before, is more in control of his performance and he remains a remarkably attractive man, even in late middle age. He looks as though he could be the love child of The Graduate’s Benjamin and Mrs Robinson. But his voice doesn’t have the range and command to withstand a two-hour bout of storytelling.
Jonze has a decades-long friendship with the men, and directed some of their music videos, and it could be that the relationship is a liability, making the director overly forgiving of the technical faults in their performances. Jonze doesn’t do anything to protect them, either in the staging or in the editing. Diamond and Horovitz are not boys anymore, and so when their comedy falls flat it doesn’t seem prankish or cheekily crass; it’s just embarrassingly leaden.
There are moments of lovely intimacy though, all of which have to do with the love and respect that the men have for Yauch. They’re generous in ascribing the band’s inventiveness and risk-taking to him, and the most affecting scene in the film is when they give themselves over to an unashamed grief. Yauch’s absence is also felt by the audience. We see his artwork as part of the back projection: his photographs have vivacity and beauty, and his video work a deliberately naive comic flair. But for a film about musicians there is very little articulation about what these men have discovered in music. Even their love of hip-hop comes across as muted. We never really find out why they fell for the music in the first place.
The ellipses in the narrative are frustrating. This may be the Beastie Boys, according to the Beastie Boys, but that means the most fascinating, complex and contradictory parts of their story end up being ignored. I wanted to know what drew rich white kids to the underground music being played in black dance halls and discos, and I wanted to understand how those kids managed to bridge those immense social and cultural divides. I wanted to know what their Jewishness meant to them and what its relationship was to whiteness in early 1980s New York.
I’m prepared to believe that Russell Simmons was predatory and venal in his management but I also wanted to hear a voice explaining what it meant for an African–American man to be reversing the longstanding custom of white label owners exploiting black artists, and stereotypes of “blackness”, in selling music. I wanted to hear what being dumped meant to Schellenbach. In her voice. Even the mea culpa offered for the band’s initial misogyny left me unsatisfied. My memory of that time, at the end of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, is of a concerted effort by largely white pressure groups to enact censorship on hip-hop for its perceived sexism and violence. At the same time, equally censorious American politicians and legislators were calling for the defunding of queer artists. So, when Beastie Boys squawked in their frat-boy snarl that “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party)” we all knew it was being done with a wink. And many of us – not all white, not all male and not all straight – were winking back.
The ferment of that moment, with AIDS at its most devastating in New York, and with the battlelines of what was meant by “blackness” and what was meant by “whiteness” in continuous shift, was both constructive and destructive. This Beastie Boys Story is tamed. We get no sense of the danger of those times nor of the excitement.
The look of the film is crisp, the framing elegant, and the cinematography by Autumn Durald seems to be inspired by the work of Jordan Cronenweth on Jonathan Demme’s superb 1984 concert film, Stop Making Sense. But there’s none of the elation of that film in Beastie Boys Story. There’s a laziness to it, as if coasting on nostalgia is enough. It doesn’t explain where the sonic punch of “Sabotage” came from, and it doesn’t do justice to the groundbreaking experiment that was Paul’s Boutique. It’s the strangest of musical documentaries: it relegates the music. The day after watching it, I put on the B-side to my 12-inch of “Shake Your Rump”, just to hear the musical joy in it. Then I played Check Your Head. I needed to hear the Beastie Boys again. In the film, I could hardly hear them.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2020 as "Toothless Beastie".
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