The Beastie Boys TED Talk
If you like this movie, you’ll love the book
The Beastie Boys Story, directed by Spike Jonze and now airing on Apple TV, isn’t a traditional documentary. It’s more like a Beastie Boys TED Talk. Labeling it a “Live Documentary Experience,” the movie consists of a rejiggered live show that the band’s two suriving members, Adam “Adrock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond, took on the road in 2018 to promote their (then) new book.
Half PowerPoint presentation, half two-man show developed in a small black box theater, the movie tells the story of the band from the very beginning to the release of the “Hello Nasty” album, before jumping to the band’s end after the death of Adam “MCA” Yauch from cancer in 2012. As others have pointed out, the movie spends a lot of time memorializing the fallen bandmate, whose death at the age of 47 weighs heavily on the other two members.
There are quite a few tear-jerker moments, but there are also a lot of funny bits, some more organic than others. There’s a running gag about the show’s technical difficulties, yet these “screw ups” don’t feel real. They probably are, but knowing the band’s sense of humor, which fully embraces Andy Kaufman-style deception–take Yauch’s “Nathaniel Hornblower” character, for example–it’s difficult to take these bits seriously.
Jokes aside, the movie is like a live reading of their book. More accurately, it’s a sampler of their story, like the Reader’s Digest version of a novel. Though I highly suggest reading it, the book is long and full of bits that wouldn’t translate to a movie, like detailed descriptions of mix tapes and recipes. The movie pairs down the book to its center: the tale of three crate-digging record nerds from New York City who became some of the earliest rap stars before they graduated high school, and how they managed to extend that into a real career.
The movie also provides a soapbox for the 50-year-old former rappers. The Beastie Boys Movie came out two years after the book’s release, and it appears Horovitz and Diamond had more to say, mostly about their sexist past. While the band clearly prides itself on its accomplishments, Horovitz and Diamond also reckon with the fact that they wrote shitty, misogynistic tracks like “Girls.” In our post-MeToo world, the B Boys are quick to remind us that they really regret their anthems for “Kavanaughs.”
But the moment that grabbed and shook me came when the two discussed their split with Def Jam records. They made the point that label owner Russell Simmons didn’t believe in the band; he just wanted some white boys to help him sell rap to the masses. They claimed they were exploited and, in a roundabout way, admitted they were lucky. Right place, right time, right people led to rap stardom. They might have compromised their vision in the beginning, but they stopped after the first record and still managed to take over the world. I’d call that pretty damn lucky.
But we were lucky too. With the Beastie Boys came accessibility to a whole world of great music long before the Internet placed everything at your fingertips. From the band came a range of different styles, from dub to hardcore punk, and references to musicians everyone should check out, like Eddie Harris and Lee “Scratch” Perry. Also, because the band boosted their influences, once obscure records saw re-releases at a massive scale. Thanks to the Beasties, you could buy the Bad Brains ROIR album at a mall in Tiny Town, U.S.A.
In the end, The Beastie Boys Story reminds those who grew up with the band in the ‘90s, who watched their videos slip in between tracks from Nirvana and Metallica on MTV, that we can look back and recognize how good we had it. The Beasties never compromised their vision for money. They broadened their tastes as they went along and expanded our musical knowledge along the way. Most importantly, they admitted their mistakes and utilized their fame for good, from calling out rapists at Woodstock ‘99 to raising millions of dollars for Tibetan independence. Their fans might’ve been Kavanaughs, but the Beasties set a good example for everyone to follow, and we’re all better for it.
That being said, they should’ve ended The Beastie Boys Story by saying, “We’re the Beastie Boys and this was our TED Talk.” Then it would’ve been perfect.