Any fan of the hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest should be thankful to actor Michael Rapaport, who’s put together a solid documentary about the group’s rise and fall, complete with lots of interview excerpts with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jacobi White. And even if you’re not, “Beats, Rhymes & Life” isn’t without interest as a portrait of a bunch of guys who make it big but have an equally big falling-out.
Love of the kind of music the band played—a genre in which they were, the film persuasively argues, seminal figures—isn’t a prerequisite to appreciating Rapaport’s work. I certainly don’t care for it, and the examples we hear in the picture leave me cold.
But the excerpts from the group’s performances are really secondary here. Far more important is the impressionistic picture Rapaport and his editors Lenny Mesina and AJ Schnack—using a variety of archival materials, reminiscences by those who were there, and in some cases, hazy reconstructions—draw of the New York music scene in the late eighties, and the impact the group made with the release of their first two albums in 1990-91. The film then scrupulously follows the band’s journey through 1998, when it broke up acrimoniously. The cause was clearly growing hostility between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, the former increasingly the public face and driving force behind the group (and, in the judgment of Dawg, a control freak) and the latter a man whose ability to meet the demands of tours was imperiled by his reluctance to deal with his diabetes. It’s clear from the comments of the two men, and their fellow band members, that the antagonism isn’t over even now.
Nonetheless the four came together in 2008 for a nationwide tour, and Rapaport tagged along, getting great interviews along the way as well as fly-on-the-wall footage of the blow-up between Q-Tip and Dawg in San Francisco that ended their supposed rapprochement. And though they’re clearly secondary figures in the drama, Mohammed and White emerge as distinct characters too, both trying to get along in the eye of the storm, as it were. A postscript about Q-Tip’s solo career and Dawg’s serious medical difficulties brings their story up to date.
The result is one of the better music documentaries of recent years. Respectful but not idolatrous, this is one “Behind the Music”-style piece that even those who have never heard of the group can appreciate.