It’s obvious that actor-turned-documentarian Michael Rapaport has a respect and love for A Tribe Called Quest, the innovative hip-hop group he’s covering here in Beats, Rhymes & Life. The challenge is in transferring that enthusiasm onto someone who doesn’t share it. Take me, for example, a neophyte whose knowledge of A Tribe Called Quest begins and ends with “I Left My Wallet in El Segundo.”
Really, your mileage will vary depending on how big a fan you are of A Tribe Called Quest, and how familiar you are with members Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White. The film spends a good chunk of the opening reels getting the audience up to speed, running through a general history of the group. Some of this is interesting, serving as a general introduction to the socially conscious hip-hop movement of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Unfortunately, this also leads to a lot of talking-head interviews explaining—with great fervor—why, exactly, A Tribe Called Quest is so important, rather than allowing the audience to decide on their own.
All of this, however, isn’t the meat of Beats, Rhymes & Life, since the film is really concerned with the disintegration of the group and their flawed interpersonal dynamics. And here, as well, is where the film starts to run into trouble. It has the usual Behind the Music type of issues, but in a documentary context these come across as surprisingly shallow. Much of the story revolves around Q-Tip’s popularity compared to the rest of the group, Phife Dawg’s struggles with diabetes, and how they all dovetail into a whole lot of bickering. Within the context of the film, it all seems so empty and petty. Yet, Rapaport never seems to examine the possibility that the turmoil is exactly what it seems—empty and petty band drama. Never did I feel I understood any of the people onscreen beyond the simple notion that they just don’t always get along. And I hate to break it to Mr. Rapaport, but that’s how most people are. And before you know it, everyone’s made up and they’re all performing together again. As storytelling, its clunky, and we don’t even get anything as funny as Dave Mustaine crying in the Metallica documentary Some Kind of Monster (2004).
What we get with Beats, Rhymes & Life are some glimpses into ego. There’s nothing particularly in-depth or observant in Rapaport’s approach, and there seems to be less of a point. Longtime fans of the group, who already likely have a basic knowledge of A Tribe Called Quest’s inner-workings and personalities, will probably get more out of the film than I did. Rated R for language.