April 24, 2020
by Carla Hay
Directed by Spike Jonze
Culture Representation: This Beastie Boys documentary is a recording of a storytelling, multimedia stage presentation in the group’s hometown of New York City, with surviving Beastie Boys members Adam Horovitz and Mike Diamond as the narrators telling the story of how the Beastie Boys became the first white rappers to have massive crossover success.
Culture Clash: The highs and lows of the Beastie Boys’ career included experimental music that went against what was popular at the time; bitter legal disputes over unpaid royalties; and fighting stereotypes of their early image as mindless “party boys.”
Culture Audience: Aside from the group’s die-hard fans, “Beastie Boys Story” will appeal mostly to people who are nostalgic about rock-infused hip-hop music from the late 1980s and 1990s, when the Beastie Boys were at their peak.
In October and November 2018, Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond—the surviving members of the Grammy-winning, multiplatinum hip-hop /rock trio Beastie Boys—did a brief theater tour that was a multimedia, live presentation of their bestselling, critically acclaimed 2018 memoir “Beastie Boys Book.” The tour (which visited New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco and London) was then extended to three additional shows in April 2019, in Philadelphia and New York City. Footage from the tour’s last stop at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn is the basis of this documentary, directed by longtime Beastie Boys collaborator Spike Jonze.
The Beastie Boys no longer exist as a group, since founding member Adam Yauch (also known as MCA) tragically died of cancer in 2012, at the age of 47. Horovitz (also known as Ad-Rock) and Diamond (also known as Mike D) dedicated the book and the tour to Yauch, who is lovingly and respectfully remembered. The documentary is essentially Horovitz and Diamond standing on stage, reading “Beastie Boys Book” excerpts in chronological order from a teleprompter, while archival photos and videos play on a big screen in the background.
Under other circumstances and with the wrong people, it could have been an awfully dull or pretentious stage show. But the entire show, as presented in this nearly two-hour documentary, is humorous, emotionally moving and overall an entertaining ride. The show also pokes fun at the fact that Horovitz and Diamond are reading from a teleprompter.
And there are a few segments when director Jonze can be heard on a loudspeaker, interrupting the show to say that he’s not going to play a videoclip or he messed up and missed a video cue. Some of these “mistakes” could have been staged (it sure seems that way), but even if these “flubs” were pre-planned, it achieved the intended result: to make the audience laugh.
People who don’t care about the Beastie Boys’ music can find something to like in this movie, whether it’s the candid way that Horovitz and Diamond admit that fame went to all of their heads when the Beastie Boys’ first album (1986’s “License to Ill”) was a smash hit, or the vivid descriptions of the group’s evolution from being bratty party boys to mature musicians who now cringe at the sexist lyrics they had in their early songs.
Yauch is described as the leader of the Beastie Boys, a group he co-founded in New York City in 1981. He was the one who took the most creative risks and the one who was the most likely to encourage other people to also push boundaries and explore new skills and interests. Diamond was viewed as the biggest “clown” in the group, and he admits that he spent much of the Beastie Boys’ heyday in a haze of drug abuse. Horovitz was often perceived as the “cool heartthrob” of the Beastie Boys, and he’s definitely more dominant than Diamond during the stage show. However, Horovitz also reveals a vulnerable side—he gets so tearful and emotional when talking about the Beastie Boys’ last concert with Yauch that he asks Diamond to finish what Horovitz was supposed to say on the teleprompter.
People unfamiliar with the history of the Beastie Boys might be surprised to find out that the group’s original lineup included drummer Kate Schellenbach, a friend from their teen years. Schellenbach would later become the drummer for the all-female rock band Luscious Jackson, whose lead singer Jill Cunniff was also a teenage friend of the Beastie Boys members. Horovitz expresses regret about Schellenbach being ousted from the Beastie Boys when the group decided to change its image to being full-on “bad boys,” in order to get a record deal.
“Licensed to Ill” was released on Def Jam Records, which was co-founded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons. Rubin was the group’s producer, while Simmons managed the Beastie Boys. At the time, Beastie Boys idolized Run-DMC, the pioneering rap trio that was signed to Def Jam and was also managed by Simmons. Rubin and Simmons saw an opportunity to market to the masses a white, “bad boy” version of Run-DMC. It worked. “Licensed to Ill” became one of the biggest-selling debut albums of all time (it’s sold 10 million copies in the U.S.), spawning the breakthrough crossover hit “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party),” which remains the Beastie Boys’ most famous song.
Within two years, the Beastie Boys went from being the opening act for Madonna (a gig they got only because Madonna’s manager thought Run-DMC’s asking fee was too high) and the opening act for Run-DMC to headlining their own arena concerts. By the time the Beastie Boys were ready to make their second album in 1988, they had severed ties with Def Jam’s Simmons and Rubin over unpaid royalties and started over with a new multi-album deal with Capitol Records.
The Beastie Boys were also burned out from constant touring, and they took time apart from each other, which is when Horovitz moved to Los Angeles and started a fledgling acting career. Part of the documentary includes a self-deprecating look at Horovitz’s feature-film acting debut with his starring role in the 1989 dramatic movie “Lost Angels.” Yauch and Diamond also soon relocated to Los Angeles. Horovitz confesses that during this period of time, “I continued to run away from everything I was feeling” to escape from the grief of personal issues, such as his mother’s death from cancer in 1983.
But because the Beastie Boys had experienced fame and fortune so quickly, they went overboard in spending money on that second album, 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique.” They rented a high-priced house in the Hollywood Hills, indulged in a lot of expensive studio time, and partied too much. The house was owned by showbiz couple Alex and Marilyn Grasshoff, whose closet was raided by the Beastie Boys and inspired the 1970s fashion in the Beastie Boys videos for “Paul’s Boutique.”
The “Paul’s Boutique” album was a flop when it was first released, and the Beastie Boys went from headlining arenas for their first album to performing at nightclubs for their second album. It was a humbling experience that would’ve broken a lot of bands, but it just strengthened the Beastie Boys. They began to value the importance of staying true to their creative vision and not listening to other people telling them who they should be. The sample-heavy and richly layered “Paul’s Boutique” is now an influential hip-hop classic that has gone multiplatinum.
The Beastie Boys further evolved, by relying less on sampled music and creating their own sounds, playing their own instruments, and starting to sing more on their songs. The result was 1992’s “Check Your Head” album (featuring the MTV psychedelic hit “So What’cha Want”), which further solidified the Beastie Boys as a group that could easily blur the boundaries between hip-hop and rock. Diamond says, “It wasn’t until the end of the ‘Check Your Head’ tour that I actually, confidently considered myself to be a musician.”
The group’s biggest comeback came with 1994’s “Ill Communication” album, which featured the hit “Sabotage” and a popular ’70s-inspired police detective chase video for “Sabotage” that was directed by Jonze. The “Sabotage” video was nominated for five MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year, and the song received a Grammy nomination for Best Hard Rock Performance.
By the mid-1990s, the Beastie Boys had relocated back to New York City, after the tragic overdose death of their close friend Dave Scilken in 1991. The group had also started a record label (Grand Royal), and Yauch had directed several Beastie Boys videos under the alias Nathanial Hörnblowér, a fictional Swiss persona who wore traditional Swiss clothing and campy disguises. The documentary includes footage from the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, when Yauch (dressed as Nathanial Hörnblowér) crashed the stage and did a protest interruption when R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” won the award for Breakthrough Video over the Beastie Boys’ “Sabatoge.” Unlike Kayne West’s MTV VMA stage bumrush of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech in 2009, this Yauch/Hörnblowér interruption was all in good fun and intended to be comedic.
Yauch also became deeply involved in social issues, such as Tibetan freedom rights. His spearheading of the Tibetan Freedom Concert, which was an annual event that began in 1996, is fondly remembered in the documentary. (In 2008, Yauch also co-founded the independent film/music company Oscilloscope Laboratories, which is not mentioned in the documentary.) Horovitz describes Yauch as a “once-in-a-lifetime friend,” while Diamond says that as close as Yauch was to his bandmates, he still remained a “conundrum” and a “contradiction” because he was so unpredictable.
The Beastie Boys’ 1998 album “Hello Nasty” is cited as one of the group’s favorites. The album spawned the hit “Intergalactic,” which has a Nathanial Hörnblowér-directed video that parodied Japanese Super Sentai shows. (The “Intergalactic” video is shown during the documentary’s end credits.) The “Hello Nasty” album was a another smash hit for the Beastie Boys, and it resulted in them winning their first two Grammy Awards: Best Rap Performance by a Duo or Group (for “Intergalactic”) and Best Alternative Music Album.
“Intergalactic” also won Best Hip-Hop Video at the 1999 MTV VMAs, which honored the Beastie Boys in 1998 with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Although the Beastie Boys released three more studio albums after “Hello Nasty,” these albums—2004’s “To the 5 Boroughs,” 2007’s “The Mix-Up” and 2011’s “Hot Sauce Committee Part Two”—get hardly any screen time in the documentary, compared to the previous albums. It’s probably because the filmmakers know that the Beastie Boys’ most popular music was from the 1980s and 1990s.
The documentary also shows Horovitz and Diamond giving credit and showing appreciation to several of the collaborators and colleagues that the Beastie Boys had along the way, including Schellenbach, the late John Berry (who was an original guitarist for Beastie Boys), manager Paul Silva, songwriter/musician Money Mark and producers Mario Caldato Jr. (also known as Mario C.), Matt Dike and the Dust Brothers.
People who’ve already read “Beastie Boys Book” won’t discover anything new by seeing this documentary. There’s no behind-the-scenes footage of the book tour, other than a brief montage in the beginning of the movie that shows fans waiting outside the theater and talking about who’s their favorite Beastie Boys member. And there appears to be not much ad-libbing or spontaneity during the show or interaction with the audience.
The only exception to audience interaction is outtake footage in the middle of the end credits that shows Ben Stiller, David Cross and Steve Buscemi standing up in the audience, and interrupting the show with comedic scripted dialogue when Horovitz and Diamond talk about “Paul’s Boutique” flopping. These scenes, which were obviously filmed at different performances, are better off as outtakes, since they don’t fit the flow of the rest of the show.
However, the documentary overall doesn’t rely on a lot of gimmicks. Only a few props are used on stage, such as a giant reel-to-reel tape recorder that’s brought out when a story is told about how Beastie Boys first discovered layered sampling in the recording studio. And there aren’t too many distracting cutaway shots to the audience. (This is not a kid-friendly movie though, since there’s a lot of cursing throughout the entire documentary.)
“Beastie Boys Story” is a well-edited and engaging visual capsule of the group’s history. At the very least, this documentary might make people curious to check out more of their music or to read “Beastie Boys Book” to get a deeper dive into more of the group’s fascinating stories.
Apple TV+ premiered “Beastie Boys Story” on April 24, 2020.