When they hit the music scene in the mid-80s many people dismissed the Beastie Boys as the class clowns of rap. Behind their average guy personas and sophomoric antics were a trio of musicians whose innovative blend of rock and rap would change the world of music forever. They are now widely considered one of the most influential bands of their generation. Fans love their unique sound, offbeat music videos, tongue-in-cheek lyrics, and a level of accessibility not typically found in popular music acts.
Decades later, that accessibility remains as the band returns to tell “Beastie Boys Story” on AppleTV+. The documentary is an insightful, entertaining and, at times, surprisingly moving, look back at the band. Directed by longtime Beastie Boys collaborator Spike Jonze (“Being John Malkovich”), the film is described as a live documentary experience. Jonze takes viewers on a multimedia journey to explore the men behind the Boys. Starting back in their high school days and continuing right up to their last concert, it celebrates the band’s history, music, and friendships. Stories are shared while retaining the trademark qualities of any Beastie Boys project, and it is a hell of a lot of fun.
Jonze forgoes your traditional documentary approach and gives us something more personal, a Beastie Boys live documentary experience. Shot on stage at Kings Theater in Brooklyn, the film is a bit of a mashup – part TED Talk, part comedy act, and part confessional. Dressed to the nines in sneakers, sweatshirts, and khakis, band members Mike D (Michael Diamond) and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz) serve as our tour guides. They share the mic while they take us on a nostalgic journey through Beastie Boys history. Diamond and Horovitz are joined on stage, via video clips, by fellow bandmember, M.C.A. (Adam Yauch,) who sadly lost his battle with salivary cancer in 2012.
Their story is broken down into bite-sized chapters and told with the spirited you-should-have-been-there energy you often find when friends reminisce about days gone by. Our guides own the stage with their charismatic personalities that come through in every story. The tone remains light as they break into impersonations, rhymes, and deliver copious laughs. The nostalgia trip is interspersed with archival footage, rare photos, music, and concert videos. They whisk us back to long-gone music eras including punk, old school rap, and a time when the M in MTV stood for music. (OK, boomer!)
The Beastie’s meteoric rise to the top was the perfect combination of talent, bravado, ambition, and luck. The curtain is pulled back revealing the band’s unconventional, and often hilarious, ways to step into the limelight. Fortunately for us, the group captured some of their most outlandish escapades and put them on display here. As Diamond and Horovitz watch these moments play out, you can read the astonishment on their faces. The pair turn into the ultimate Beastie Boys fanboys. Even they seem astonished that this all actually happened to those three kids from New York.
A rare look inside the band’s music-making process shows it was anything but scientific, yet it somehow worked. Essentially, we see a group of friends hanging out, having fun making music. Like artists transforming a blank canvas to a masterpiece, their concepts often originated with one of them thinking “wouldn’t it be cool if,” or playing an “awesome bass line” with the rest of the band joining in to bring it to life. It is inspiring to watch them rely on their creative instincts to deliver their innovative and evolving sound from album to album.
The tone shifts, becoming welcomely introspective, as they reflect on the tribulations the band dealt with along their career. They were brought back down to earth after their sophomore album “Paul’s Boutique” was a commercial failure. Regret is in their voices as they confess to damaged relationships, a side effect of their inability to handle fame. That regret turns to shame as they acknowledge their biggest career misstep, the crude and demeaning lyrics in their songs. ”Girls” is a cringe-worthy collection of sexist statements reducing women as objects meant to cater to their every need.
Instead of apologizing for such mistakes, the band tackles them head-on to become a force for change in the world. Diamond admirably recalls a time when Horovitz was confronted about being a hypocrite for the band’s about-face on the subject the treatment of women. Horowitz profoundly responded to the attack by saying “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever.” These types of revelations are where the documentary pleasantly surprises, slowing things down to show the substance over the style.
Entering the final turn, the long-anticipated gut punch is delivered. Throughout the show, Mike D and Ad-Rock never refer to Yauch as if he is gone. Rather, it felt like he simply was unable to attend the event. Things become more intimate when they sit down to talk about his passing. For me, this moment served as a final reminder that the Beastie Boys will never share the stage again. It is gut-wrenching. After 90 minutes of uproarious storytelling, when the real emotional weight settles in it is quite moving.
“Beastie Boys Story” is a gift to fans that should not be missed. The candid look back covers the emotional gamut with the band’s rocking tunes serving as the soundtrack. Fans will be hard-pressed to not be affected by the poignant ride “these three bad brothers you know so well” take us on. Others may find a new appreciation in this trio who stayed true to their music and each other. No matter if you are a fan of music, comedy, human stories or documentaries, these Boys are worth your time.
Sadly, due to the pandemic fans will not be able to gather in theaters to celebrate the band as intended. (A friendly heads up: be sure to sit through the credits).