Film Review – Beastie Boys Story
Beastie Boys Story
As the title would suggest, Beastie Boys Story (2020) traces the journey of the New York hip hop group, the Beastie Boys – made up of members Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “MCA” Yauch, and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. The documentary (directed by longtime collaborator Spike Jonze) bounces back and forth between archival footage and a live stage show in which Diamond and Horovitz narrate their story up to and including the untimely death of Yauch in 2012.
But if you think this is simply another musical documentary, you’re in for a surprise. There is an infectious energy running throughout, emblematic of the approach the band brought to their music. While greying hair and wrinkles are apparent in the present versions of Diamond and Horovitz, their exuberance and humorous style has not aged a day when they are on stage. It’s clear that they enjoy being in one another’s company, tossing dialogue back and forth with ease and flow – as if they were juggling rap lyrics in the middle of a concert.
Spike Jonze is a director who morphs with every project he takes on. His ability to creatively match up with any type of material made him the ideal partner for the Beastie Boys (it’s why he ended up directing a handful of their music videos). His career trajectory owes a lot to his work with the band. Here, he traces their evolution from their early days in the punk rock scene, falling in love with hip hop music, their explosion into the mainstream with Rick Rubin, Russell Simmons, and Def Jam Records, and their desire for independence and creative expression. The documentary highlights the ever-changing musical landscape of New York from the late seventies onward, the rise of MTV and pop culture, and how three white kids were ultimately embraced for being far more than just a hip-hop gimmick.
But it isn’t all laughs and self-celebration. Horovitz and Diamond open themselves up to us, showing the joys of their profession but also their regrets. In one moment, Diamond slows things down and recites the lyrics to their song “Girls” – ripe with sexist and misogynistic symbolism. Diamond and Horovitz discuss their conflicting emotions over “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” a song that was meant to satirize toxic party culture and ended up being a smash hit for all the wrong reasons. The buffoonish nature of the song ended up defining who the Beastie Boys were in those early days. Horovitz, Diamond, and Yauch (in archival interviews) detail how they became the monster they created, and their attempts to shed that image in the years that followed.
Yauch is credited with a message that is key to the whole film, “I’d rather be a hypocrite than stay the same.” That is the underlying theme: how personal and artistic growth changed the band from immature youths to thoughtful, reflective adults. Their album Licensed to Ill gave birth to Paul’s Boutique, which gave birth to Check Your Head and so on. Their desire to escape their party image caused them to break away from Def Jam, who wanted to keep their personas for mere financial reasons.
In an age where social media can condemn a person in a matter of hours, we tend to forget that people have the capability to change in positive ways. The human experience is not a static one – it is constantly evolving and taking on new forms. The Beastie Boys are a perfect example of this. Who would’ve thought that a band that would write a song like “Girls” would one day be applauded for their feminist ideals? Who would’ve thought that a person like Adam Yauch, who once stood on stage with a giant penis towering behind him, would one day become a Buddhist and help organize the Tibetan Freedom Concert? The Beastie Boys were a musical act that was in constant search for self-improvement, always learning and developing into better versions of themselves.
If anything, Beastie Boys Story is just a fun watch, full of laughs, quirky asides, and random tangents. Diamond and Horovitz occupy the stage like a pair of comedians, garnering laughs from the audience. Their lack of vanity allows them to laugh and poke fun at themselves as they watch old video clips. There’s an atmosphere of spontaneity throughout the live show, as though the stories they tell come at the drop of a hat. We also get a running gag where Jonze himself, heard over speaker, calls in and speaks to the two when something goes wrong or if a cue is missed.
You don’t need to be a fan of the Beastie Boys to enjoy this documentary. I – admittedly – was only a casual admirer growing up, stopping to watch “Sabotage” or “Intergalactic” on MTV while flipping channels. But what they successfully accomplish here was bringing us into their world and having us see it through their eyes, warts and all.