Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest (Sony Pictures Classics, R)

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Beats, Rhymes & Life is more broad than deep, and you can easily come away feeling like you've watched a more positive version of Behind the Music.



A Tribe Called Quest was one of the most influential hip-hop groups of the 1990s, releasing five gold and platinum albums in eight years before suddenly breaking up in 1998. Actor Michael Rapaport (Boston Public, Friends, Mighty Aphrodite), a New York City native and a huge fan of the group, makes his feature directing debut with Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest. The result is a fairly conventional documentary that pays tribute to the group and its music while adhering to the standard conventions of the collective biopic, tracing the band from humble origins to musical and financial triumph to breakup, followed by some measure of reconciliation.

Even if you think you don't like hip-hop you may find yourself captivated by the musicality of A Tribe Called Quest, and that alone is reason to watch this documentary, which includes generous samples of the band's music. Rapaport also fills in the background for the band members (Q-Tip and Phife Dawg grew up together in Queens and attended Murray Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Manhattan along with the band's other two members, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White) and provides glimpses backstage and onstage during their 2008 reunion tour (the usual shaky-cam stuff, no better or worse than you might expect). Loads of old photos and film clips and interviews with friends and family as well as an all-star cast of musicians, from Mos Def to the Beastie Boys, round out the film.

Beats, Rhymes & Life is more broad than deep, and you can easily come away feeling like you've watched a more positive version of Behind the Music, one that emphasizes the achievements of the band collectively and as individuals rather than wallowing in the dirt with them. However Rapaport's status as a fan is obvious and he seems at times to be acting as the band's publicist, accepting their presentation of themselves rather than finding out anything new or interesting to tell us. The breakup, which seems to have been caused by a combination of professional jealousy and a misunderstanding which could easily have been cleared up with a simple explanation and apology, is more stated than examined and we learn far more about Phife Dawg's medical problems (he has juvenile diabetes and required dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant) than we do about the group's internal dynamics. Q-Tip in particular remains very much a distant figure and while that may be the way he wanted it, it doesn't make for the most exciting movie.

While Beats, Rhymes & Life is not a great documentary, it's one that is certainly worth seeing. Besides the importance of A Tribe Called Quest in the evolution of music, it's also worth spending some time in the company of these articulate young men who provide strong counters to many of the stereotypes of rap musicians. The film ends with a title card providing hope that they may yet get back together; their recording contract calls for one more album. | Sarah Boslaugh


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