Title: Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest
Director: Michael Rapaport
Lately, there’s been a run of music documentaries coming out, more of them being actual love letters to the music instead of actual films is slightly annoying to the landscape of cinema. Recently, Cameron Crowe released his love letter to Pearl Jam in “Pearl Jam Twenty,” which was an examination of how wonderful the band Pearl Jam was and is in pop culture and to Cameron Crowe. But despite the glitzy frills of concert footage and more recent interviews melded with home videos from the late 80s and early 90s, “Pearl Jam Twenty” doesn’t offer anything more than what’s on the surface. In the new film (or should I say love letter) from first time filmmaker, Michael Rapaport, “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” follows suit in Cameron Crowe’s mediocre effort, only Rapaport tiptoes, then dives into the waters of actual drama behind the band.
The documentary follows the influential hip-hop band A Tribe Called Quest in their quest for hip-hop legitimacy and success. From the very start of the inception of hip-hop in the early 80s, the members of the band have committed themselves to the art and style of the emerging music genre. Taking real life footage of old shows and old recording sessions, mixed with current interviews and confrontations, Rapaport does do an effective job in presenting the band in a objective light. The documentary feels problematic when it doesn’t go deep enough with its subjects. Why did the band break up in the first place? Why was there such a heavy resentment between the two lead rappers, Fife Dawg and Abstract? It doesn’t feel like it wants to go far enough to be thorough to be an effective documentary as a piece of cinema instead of being content with wanting to be a love letter.
It’s obvious Rapaport has an affection for this band, and as a reviewer, so do I, but is this film trying to convince the audience of A Tribe Called Quest’s appeal. From time to time, this documentary sure feels like it. There’s not much to takeaway from this film because it’s so surface level. There was a band called A Tribe Called Quest, they were popular among their peers, audiences “ahead of the curve” loved them and then they broke up because of in-fighting and record label troubles. What separates these plot point from any other band? The other times in this film, Rapaport effectively lets the music speak for itself by letting it speak for itself with performances, but to what end. It feels like the actual drama and story with A Tribe Called Quest is more meatier but in the end, it feels like an unsatisfying meal.
I feel “Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest” would be a good movie for any hip-hop fan or fan of A Tribe Called Quest, but it doesn’t cross-over with the filmmaking to an audience who has no interest in the music or band. Good music documentaries, or any good documentary for that matter, should transcend its subject to a larger audience, otherwise, what’s the point. It might as well be a bonus feature of a deluxe box set instead of a theatrical release. It can be a love letter but there needs to be something more substantive than just praise from one of their biggest fans.