All Movie Guide - Mark Deming
One of the tricky things about family relationships is that no one knows and understands you quite the way your siblings do, but at the same time no one can more easily drive you up the wall. Being in a band is a lot like having a second family, and watching Michael Rapaport's documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, you spend 95 minutes with a handful of guys who love each other like brothers yet also push each other's buttons -- sometimes on purpose, sometimes without realizing it. While the film offers a fascinating inside look at the history of one of hip-hop's most fabled acts, it's also a character study of four longtime friends who each have their own creative visions and personal issues that sometimes get in the way of their art and their relationship off-stage. Formed in 1988, A Tribe Called Quest was one of the most innovative acts to come out of New York's hip-hop scene, with rappers Q-Tip (aka Jonathan Davis) and Phife Dawg (aka Malik Taylor) swapping rhymes that avoided the beefs, boasting, and gangsta posturing that dominated rap at the time and replaced them with witty but pointed character studies, social commentary, and observations on African-American attitudes and culture. Just as important as the verses was the music; DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad spun deep grooves that were often sampled from classic jazz recordings, giving the band a rich, rootsy sound that set them apart from their peers. The group's first album, 1990's People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm, was a striking and impressive debut that sold well, but the group broke into hip-hop's elite with 1991's instant classic The Low End Theory, whose brilliantly crafted rhymes and musical flow confirmed ATCQ's status as one of very finest rap acts to ever pick up a mic. It was a critical and commercial smash, but after another excellent album, 1993's Midnight Marauders, the group began to lose its creative footing, and in 1998, after the release of The Love Movement, A Tribe Called Quest abruptly broke up. Beats, Rhymes & Life begins as A Tribe Called Quest seem poised to start over again as they reunite to headline the touring hip-hop festival Rock the Bells in 2009. The first images of ATCQ in front of a cheering crowd are lively, exciting stuff, with Q-Tip, Phife, and auxiliary member Jarobi White bounding around the stage and swapping verses like the decade apart was a mere five minutes, as Ali lays down the beats that made them legends. Once they come off-stage, though, it's clear Q-Tip is not happy, and as Rapaport backtracks to give us a look at the group's early days, we learn a lot about their strengths as well as the source of their current tension. Q-Tip and Phife have been friends since they were two years old, and they seem like a perfectly matched yin and yang; Q-Tip is a stylish self-styled ladies' man and unpretentious intellectual, while Phife seems more street-smart than bookish but is clearly no fool and is clearly proud of his regular-guy status. Compared to them, Ali comes off as the quiet, studious older brother who speaks only when he has something important to say, and Jarobi is the cousin from out of town, dropping out of the group's day-to-day operations after the first album to open a restaurant, though he remains devoted to his partners. It's clear early on that this closeness is one reason A Tribe Called Quest was a creative force to be reckoned with, but just as these men rely on each other, they also set themselves up to be let down. Q-Tip, the group's lead rapper and key producer, begins seeing himself as the leader of ATCQ, and Phife clearly doesn't care to be treated like an employee. Q-Tip, on the other hand, doesn't feel he can rely on Phife; while his punctuality seems to be an issue from day one, the larger issue is Phife's diabetes, as his failure to properly watch his diet and exercise routine sometimes prevents him from giving his best on-stage, or even appearing at all. Ali quietly represents the man in the middle, not eager to take sides but frustrated by the bickering that holds them back, while Jarobi is deeply saddened by Phife's troubles and wants ATCQ to live up to their potential. Rapaport, best known as an actor, had never directed a film before setting out to make Beats, Rhymes & Life, and if the movie sometimes betrays his inexperience, it's also fueled by his obvious love for hip-hop and a desire to tell the story of a group whose music means a lot to him. Rapaport is excellent at getting his interview subjects to open up, and his conversations with the members of ATCQ delineate the personalities of the principals while giving each enough space that the film doesn't take sides on their internecine disputes. The use of animation in many of the early sequences detailing the group's history and the rise of the Native Tongue movement feels a bit gimmicky, but he also tells a complex story in a manner that's clear and engaging, and the testimonials from other hip-hop notables (ranging from Pharrell Williams, the Beastie Boys, and Common to fellow Native Tongues artists De La Soul, the Jungle Brothers, and Monie Love) are both sincere and enlightening, reminding us just how well-regarded and innovative ATCQ were in hip-hop circles. If Beats, Rhymes & Life is a story about music, it's also a story about friendship -- how strong those bonds can be, and how far they can be stretched before they break. While the movie digs too deep into hip-hop history to please folks with no interest in rap, you don't necessarily have to be a fan of A Tribe Called Quest to be drawn into this film. On one level it's a loyal fan's love letter to the group, while also dealing with issues that are thoroughly universal, and it's hard to imagine anyone not feeling caught up in the lives of these men by the time the film comes to a close. As the title suggests, this story isn't just beats and rhymes; this is life, in all its complexity.