Beats, Rhymes and Life (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Beats, Rhymes and Life (2011)

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After a relationship has deteriorated beyond the breaking point it's easy to go back and point to flashing signs of imminent demise.  But if the unit -be it romantic, professional, etc- stays together it's just another day filled with average bumps.  Director Michael Rappaport does a tricky thing in his documentary, Beats, Rhymes and Life, about one of the best rap groups of the 90's.  He manages to take a single quote from the two beleagured partners, and shows just how far they've all gone down by placing it at different points of their careers.

From Q-Tip, it was about how any music he makes isn't written by him but about the Tribe.  For Pfife Dog, it was about how he and Q have known each other longer than anyone (save their families), and their love/hate relationship.  By the time we have the history of their group those quotes take on entirely different meanings.  What first seemed to be a declaration of unity and acknowledgement of the bumpy confusion that comes with a creative partnership turns into a bitter declaration of independence and a sad proclamation of lost friendship.

There's no shortage of excellent concert footage in the film, well used by Rappaport, to draw you in to the experience of a live show.

Rappaport's documentary is about the rise of one of the most influential hip-hop acts of the 90's, A Tribe Called Quest.  Their music, sadly, is mostly unknown to myself (save a few of my favorite rappers sampling "Can I Kick It?") but after this film I have to educate myself.  From what we see in the film, their evolution of a more socially conscious, peaceful and party-based kind of hip-hop was formed almost as a response to, and attempt to be different from, groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy (the latter of which has made some of the all-time great songs).

The film starts at the very beginning with the elementary school where founding members Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed) and Pfife Dog (Malik Taylor) met.  We're given a fairly comprehensive but always engaging retelling of their history leading to the additions of Jarobi White and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.  Rappaport does a good job recapturing the excitement they all felt as they discovered and felt out their talents for the first time.  Frequent visits to old schools are mixed with talking-head interviews with some of the top hip-hop performers and producers today (Busta Rhymes, Pharrell Williams, and many others).

The sense of reverence and detours into their childhoods might seem a bit too indulgent if they weren't filming the real deal.  Rappaport does not skimp on the concert footage and performing sections.  He wants to draw us in to the experience of being at one of their shows and discovering their music along with so many other rabid fans that the talking-head portions afterward come off as an excited after-concert experience transferred onto the audience.  But if it were just about the rise of Tribe then it would be pleasant, it's the fact that they also fell which gives Rappaport something else to work with.

Pfife Dog, during one of many bitter confrontations to the camera about Q-Tip.

Those early cracks, Q-Tip's control streak and Pfife Dog's inability to adjust his life to the demands of his diabetes, seep through the rest of the band's history.  The film mostly focuses on those two due to the conflict but doesn't forget Ali or Jarobi.  Ali, in particular, is  perfectly content commenting more on the history of the band than getting involved in the current conflicts.  But Jarobi, a long-time friend of Pfife, adds some heart to the bickering during a break-down so sad and surprising it becomes one of those rare touching moments that only documentaries can catch.

Rappaport caught some heat from Q-Tip earlier this year for how negatively he's portrayed but, now having seen the film, I'll say Q-Tip does not come off any better or worse than anyone else.  Rappaport just did what any good documentarian should do, he captured a complex situation between people who were at odds with each other and presented it as neutrally as possible in order let the audience draw their own conclusions.

Beats, Rhymes and Life might not ask the same tough questions about The Truth as a documentary like Tabloid does, but as a first time documentarian Rappaport shows that he can capture lightning in a bottle once.  I left humming the songs, wanting to know more about the people, and despite their issues was still caught up in the same sense of peace and love that he was hoping to capture.  It's nice to know that there are some keeping the faith in the band, and that Rappaport was able to so effectively share that with us.

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Beats, Rhymes and Life (2011)

Directed by Michael Rappaport.

Posted by Andrew

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  1. I really need to see this film, missed it when it played Hot Docs earlier in the year. I also need to catch Tabloid. I tried to see it at TIFF last year but tickets sold out quickly.

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