Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of ATCQ
Make room in your favorite music documentary category, one more is about to make its home there. Beats, Rhymes, and Life was without a doubt, the best film I saw at Sundance this year, musically inclined or otherwise.
Either Q-Tip was exaggerating when he said the film wasn’t done, or director Michael Rapaport performed a miracle and finished the film in two days. Because this film was an enthralling, heart-string pulling roller coaster of beauty and insight – all tastefully done. With interviews, cameos, and live performances by a who’s who of hip-hop musicians, including Mos Def, Black Thought, ?uestlove, Pete Rock, De La Soul, Pharrell Williams, Consequence, Kanye West, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige, Ludacris, and Talib Kweli, among others, the influence of A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) is easily shown.
Beginning with their childhood companionship, ending in last summer’s Rock the Bells tour, the documentary runs the entire course of A Tribe Called Quest’s history. The film was seamlessly presented, and artfully done, without a single cut scene underdone. In fact, the introduction credits were so moving visually and aurally that the entire screening audience was singing along to Tribe’s anthemic, “Can I Kick It?”.
But this ecstatic anticipation was countered by such candid portrayals of personal struggles that it literally brought tears to the eyes of the viewers. This was a candid look at the pioneering hip-hop group’s career and the far-reaching effects it had on the world.
A Tribe Called Quest hasn’t been the most vocal of artists about their career, and their breakup, and eventual reunion, but the interviews conducted with the four members of Tribe provides the insight into a world that until now was undiscovered. It becomes so personal at times that it almost makes you feel that you shouldn’t be there. These are the private lives of these artists, and perhaps we shouldn’t be privy to this information. But that raw element is what makes the film so gripping. Think back to the first time you saw The Flaming Lips doc The Fearless Freaks. Remember the scene where Steven Drozd illustrates the steps of doing heroin on camera, and it all becomes very real and heartbreaking? That’s what much of this film felt like.
Artistic conflict, dramatic relationships, tempers flaring; the film covers A Tribe Called Quest in every light, at their best when they were untouchables, and at their worst, when Phife Dawg and Q-Tip couldn’t even talk to one another. There was a particularly candid portion of the film where Phife’s diabetes is addressed by each of the members of the band and Phife’s family, and the camera goes with him into the operation room that is touching beyond all reason. Despite contempt felt between one another, all four members rallied around Phife like the brothers they had always been and come to his rescue.
I have not in a very long time seen a music documentary as touching or as genuinely riveting as Beats, Rhymes, and Life. Get ready to put it up on your shelf next to The Fearless Freaks, The Devil and Daniel Johnston, and I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, as one of the greatest music docs of all-time. This film was as packed with emotion as it was information, and the two fed off each other beautifully.
As a fun side note, ATCQ does endorse the film, and Phife Dawg was at the initial screening. During the Q&A, when asked about the current state of hip hop vs. how it was back in his heyday, he called it a dying art. He specifically cited Kanye West and OutKast as some of the only legitimate artists keeping the genre alive.
CoS Verdict: See this movie immediately, hip-hop fan or not.