Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest | Film review
The essential hip-hop group gets a big-screen mash note. But what’s in it for the rest of us?
Named after the fourth record from defunct hip-hop outfit A Tribe Called Quest, Beats Rhymes & Life doesn’t lack enthusiasm but a sense of purpose. Who is the film for, exactly? Tribe fanatics won’t learn anything they didn’t already know, while the uninitiated would be better off giving one of the group’s seminal LPs an inaugural spin.
Rapaport, a longtime hip-hop aficionado, directs the movie like a gushing superfan given an all-access pass. Though he tagged along on a reportedly tumultuous reunion jaunt in 2008, the actor-turned-documentarian feeds us only scraps of the drama happening onstage and off. This is neither a great concert film nor a warts-and-all tour document. Mostly, it’s a glorified Behind the Music special, with Rapaport constructing a thorough but scarcely penetrating history lesson—moving from the group’s formation in ’85 to its breakup in ’98 to its subsequent on-again, off-again reunion—while fans and contemporaries interject with laudatory asides.
For halfhearted conflict, the film highlights the tension between dueling MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg, whose creative differences led to the big split. For tearjerking sentiment, it drags Phife’s battle with diabetes into the spotlight. Yet Beats, Rhymes & Life really only comes to life—in the way, for example, that 1991’s terrific The Low End Theory does—in the rare moments when it’s implicitly stacking Tribe’s output against that of the current rap scene. “I love hip-hop,” says Phife, in an offhand remark. “But at the rate it’s going now, I could do with or without it.” He’s on point—if only Rapaport had the nerve to let him grab the mic and let the words rip.