I was about 9-years-old when the Beastie Boys released their anticipated 1998 “comeback” album “Hello Nasty”, but on the cover bore the familiar bane of every young hip-hop fan’s existence: the “Parental Advisory” sticker. I knew only one song off the album (“Intergalactic”), but I was just getting into rap music and was intrigued by the album’s cover, which featured the three group members in a sardine can.
From a young age, I had always been the weird white kid who was into hip-hop amidst my classmates who were almost all into alt-rock or boy bands. My horizons were expanding quickly and I needed to consume as much of the genre as quickly as possible. Upon further research, I discovered the Beastie Boys’ debut album, “Licensed to Ill”, had no such sticker that promised explicit content, so I was in the clear. Admittedly, I had favored the cleaner rap artists like Will Smith and Run-DMC anyway, but I had to check out these three white dudes who were doing exactly what I dreamed of doing – making rap music.
Beastie Boys Story, released by Apple for their fledgling Apple TV+ service, is a documentary film performed live at Kings Theater in New York by the two surviving members of the Hall of Fame trio: Michael Diamond (aka Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (aka Ad-Rock). Their third partner, Adam “MCA” Yauch, passed away back in 2012 from cancer. Helped by none other than early Beastie Boy champion Spike Jonez, it chronicles the history of the group, which formed in the early ’80s as a punk band. After discovering Run-DMC, they fell in love with rap music and the rest is history.
Michael and Adam discuss their first album, the aforementioned Licensed to Ill, and how, with the help of their label, Def Jam Recordings, they soon garnered a reputation as a frat-rap group who partied all the time and became belligerent on stage. Songs about partying began as a cheeky satire of reckless ragers, but turned into reality as their hits became a kind of identity. They skyrocketed to popularity with 1986’s “Licensed to Ill”, the fastest-selling debut album in Columbia Records history at the time. But as that first tour came to a close and the trio came back down to reality, they became embarrassed of their personas and what they were rapping about.
They were insecure that perhaps they didn’t really have any talent, merely a white rap group signed by a label as a way to get rap music on MTV. They were regular guys at the right place at the right time, but that’s about it. Each would soon retreat into their own separate exile for a few months in order to each reflect on what seemed to be a unanimous sense of failure.
The Beastie Boys knew right away that they lacked maturity in both their public personas and in their lyrics, and they sought to do things differently. They carried a perspective after only a few months of their album’s release that most artists couldn’t learn over the course of their entire careers.
Now estranged from their label and producer Rick Rubin, the trio would gravitate back to creating music and signed with Capitol Records. Desperate to be viewed as actual musicians, the group tirelessly worked on their next project. Experimenting with lyrics and production, the Boys put out what’s largely viewed as their magnum opus, “Paul’s Boutique”. Now considered a seminal piece of work in the genre, the album was a commercial failure compared to their debut. But they made something of artistic merit, as opposed to the (admittedly great) party songs on Licensed to Ill. Yet few people seemed to care.
Even though he’s no longer with us, you really get to know Yauch through the stories told by the other two. He was the driving force behind the group’s creativity and often ahead of the curve when it came to pushing the sonic envelope. Throughout the documentary there isn’t really any conflict between the three guys, but then again, there’s a reason why they stayed together all those years. They were best friends.
Perhaps the only thing missing from Beastie Boys Story is the perspective you get from outsiders. As the entire story is told through the eyes of two of its members, newcomers to the group or to rap history don’t really get any retrospect into how the Beastie Boys impacted the genre and a generation of musicians that followed them.
But what’s lost in an outside perspective is gained in self-reflection and hindsight. Having Diamond and Horovitz narrate the whole thing doesn’t quite sit right at first as the two deliver lines off of a teleprompter often by rote, but the story is straight from the source. The setup allows for the men to be a little self-deprecating as they look to the slideshow of old footage on the screen behind them, cracking jokes and occasionally going off the cuff with some ad-lib. Those are by far the best moments of the film because it shows the kind of personalities these guys had to make them stand out.
The Beastie Boys were interesting and strange individuals, especially compared to their contemporaries, and viewers will see some of that weirdness on display through both Horovitz and Diamond, as well as director Spike Jonze. Jonze, who famously directed some Beastie Boys music videos in the ’90s as some of his earliest projects, leaves in teleprompter mess-ups and various mishaps that may occur when doing a show in front of a live audience. Although they’re older and much wiser, the “boys” still possess a charming irreverence and colloquialism that set them apart from the pack.
Beastie Boys Story may be a documentary for diehards, but somehow the film manages to capture their vibe in a fun setting – a setting usually reserved for more high-brow educational material. It doesn’t do anything narratively that makes it unique, but the energetic way it’s presented is so appealing you can’t look away, even if you have no knowledge of the group’s music. In a way, it doesn’t fit with any other documentary you might’ve seen. Which seems very appropriate. The group infiltrated an entire genre of music and did so in such bizarre, different ways than everyone around them, and no matter what they did, the public couldn’t look away and not listen. And somehow, they fit in.