'Beats, Rhymes & Life': A fine and fair tribute to A Tribe Called Quest

REVIEW - The film makes an earnest effort to give the legendary hip-hop quartet its props, while critically looking at reasons for the band's breakup...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Lights flash disco-style on a middle-aged Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad as the three harmonize in front of a pumped audience for the 2008 Rock the Bells Festival. The crowd is hyped. The camera pans across an audience of bobbing heads and swaying arms.

This is how the new documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest, directed by actor Michael Rapaport, opens. Despite the controversy that has threatened to eclipse this new film — reports surfaced that Q-Tip didn’t attend the Sundance premiere in protest of the project — the scandal likely won’t hurt the project, instead doing the opposite, as die-hard hip-hop fans will want to draw conclusions independently.

The film makes an earnest effort to give the legendary hip-hop quartet its props, while critically looking at reasons for the band’s breakup. Though group member Jarobi White is a part of the cast, it’s revealed that his real passion is culinary arts, paring the group down to a threesome: Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, and Ali Shaheed Muhammad.

Candid scenes reveal Kamal “Q-Tip” Fareed’s outsized ego, his perfectionist leanings and ambition that eventually spark a petty beef between Q-Tip and Phife Dawg that Rapaport captures dramatically on film backstage at the Rock the Bells Festival.

In truth, Beats is a documentary within a documentary.

The 98-minute documentary film is evenly split. The first half of the film establishes the history — how ATCQ met, where they went to school, how they got their start. The early footage — interviews, early concerts, house parties — recreate the early days of hip-hop pre-stardom. The second half of the film is more exposé, however, focusing on the internal tension within the group that ultimately causes their fall.

Given the attention to group member, Phife Dawg (who struggles with diabetes) while nursing a jones for sugar, he gripes generously about the difficulty of working alongside Q-Tip — making the otherwise well-made documentary slanted towards Phife Dawg’s perspective adding a Jerry Springer-like quality. (I’ll admit the drama was delicious.)

In one scene, Phife Dawg calls Q-Tip out for being an egomaniac making comparisons to Diana Ross. “This is A Tribe Called Quest not Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest.” But that is only the tip of the iceberg. Q-Tip assumed the role drill sergeant to the ailing Phife Dawg (who was closeted about his diabetes and continued his ill-advised sugar binges.)
The director’s admiration for ATCQ is well noted, but in the end, may be the cause of the film’s unevenness. In the few scenes where Michael Rapaport’s voice can be heard, he compliments the group gratuitously, seamlessly changing hats from director to teenage groupie. I couldn’t help but wonder what if an actual journalist had directed the film, what would a little objectivity add (or take away) from the film.

We’ll never know. Instead of Rapaport being more deliberate with the camera, it appears the cameras are kept on in hopes of capturing a meltdown. There are a few occasions where silence swallows the scene followed by abrupt camera switches to another group member — resembling a reality TV show rather than a traditional documentary.

The film takes a softer turn by the end: Phife Dawg’s kidney has failed and he’s on a waitlist for a donor. At the last-minute, his wife is confirmed as his donor. Moments before the surgery Phife waits for a phone call from his childhood friend, Q-Tip. He receives a text.

At this crucial moment, whether the group will ever make music again takes a backseat to the more pressing question — will Phife Dawg and Q-Tip remain friends?

Ultimately, Beats, Rhymes & Life delivers as a solid documentary — entertaining, recalling warm fuzzy memories and educating the next generation of a legendary group. It was a sweet ride down memory lane—sure to please all of the weary-eyed hip hop heads nostalgic for the good ol’ days.

Once the closing credits begin the reality sets in that the film played a trick on the audience — it offered 98-minutes to travel back in time. As the lights come on, the melancholy sets in. The 1990s are gone, forever, making a lost tribe of us all.