When a legendary band went on tour in 2008, ten years after their sudden and shocking breakup, hip hop fan Michael Rapaport went along with them in order to explore what made then so unique and what eventually pulled them apart in "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest."
Actor Rapaport's obvious love for his subject has evolved into a well made documentary that allows band members and collaborators to speak for themselves and let his audience make up their own minds. He begins at 'the end,' with his yet to be introduced quartet figuring out that they've just played their last show with varying levels of emotion. Then he steps back and lets Q-Tip and Phife Dawg reflect on their long history together (since the age of 2, both living on Queen's Linden Blvd.) followed by the unlikely influences found at the Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers, including finding their two remaining band members, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, and forming the rap collective Native Tongues with the like-minded Jungle Brothers and De La Soul.
Rapaport excels in letting each of the four distinct personalities evolve out of his hundred hours of footage. Q-Tip wants to appear nattily dressed and discusses his love of record collecting. His infatuation with Lonnie Smith's 'Drive' album is a leaping off point to explore what made the band so different, finding samples in '70s rock and jazz from their parents' era and veering well away from the gangsta movement. Phife is a hard core sports fan who wears Lakers shirts in NYC and had to be coaxed into the band by his long time friend. He doesn't like his voice, but it's the perfect mate for Q-Tip's. He blows his mates away when he lays down the track for "Buggin' Out." Ali is the soft spoken technician who bore the brunt of the eventual rift between Tip and Phife while Jarobi is the compassionate, emotional one who left the group to pursue a second dream in the culinary arts (Rapaport's doc moves right on after broaching the cooking subject).
The band released five albums in eight years and right from their first, they grabbed people's attention with songs like 'I Left My Wallet in el Segundo' (amusing back story) and 'Bonita Applebum.' Personally, I have no interest in hip hop, vaguely remember the band's rise to prominence and am unfamiliar with their music, but these are some seriously cool sounds. Rapaport, who has ties to the industry, gets access to the likes of influential DJ Red Alert, the Beastie Boys, Kanye West, Pharrell, Mos Def, De La Soul, The Jungle Brothers and Common, who all offer their takes on the band, up to and including that the group shouldn't have gone on the 2008 tour if the love was no longer there.
And here is where Phife's health struggles come in. A long time sufferer of diabetes, something which his bandmates weren't even aware of for quite some time, Phife gets to the point of needing a kidney transplant (his wife is the eventual donor and we realize that except for quick takes on Jarobi's family, Rapaport avoids getting into romantic entanglements), which according to his estranged buddy Tip was a reason for 2008. But simmering tensions and misunderstandings flare up.
The way Rapaport's structured his film, the fuse appears to have been lit when Phife decided to move to Atlanta during the band's heyday. Q-Tip claims to like to create en masse, Phife says he tried to 'take over.' Again, the director lets us view the subtleties of personality that lead to strife. And yet, for those who don't know the band's history, there is yet another surprising turn of events by film's end.
Rapaport uses album covers as inspiration for animations (the opening credits are great, sprung from the African look of The Low End Theory and Sgraffito techniques), blends in old videos, and can be briefly seen himself when touring the band's neighborhood with Jarobi. You can hear the director occasionally as he questions his subjects. But mostly one must admire just how many layers he brings to the table in portraying his favorite band. If there's a small quibble, he may occasionally lose those who don't bring a similar love into the theater, but he sure works hard to win everybody over.
Robin did not see this film.
and Ratings Archive | Top
10 | Video
Reeling has been chosen as a Movie Review Query Engine Top Critic.