Strained Vibes, Excellent Scenario in a Tribe Called Quest Docx Beats, Rhymes & Life

Categories: Film and TV
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Q-Tip and Rapaport on set
The wrinkle in this retelling is that Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a phenomenal documentary. Making a "love letter" to his all-time favorite musicians, Rapaport devotes the film's first half to deftly curated archival material, golden-age hip-hop perspectives from the likes of DJ Red Alert and Monie Love, and testimony from an impressive constellation of Tribe's peers and pupils--from the Beastie Boys to Pharrell Williams to Questlove--on behalf of "the Miles Davis of hip-hop," as the Roots' Black Thought remembers the band's initial influence. (Black Thought also hilariously calls ATCQ's early kente-cloth and dashiki wardrobe "some real questionable-type shit.")

The fawning is more deserved celebration than drooling hagiography. Then comes the film's second half, which veers into cinema vérité, focusing on the disintegrated ties between boyhood friends Tip, who has evolved into dapper VH1 royalty, and his 20-year collaborator, Phife Dawg, a squeaky-voiced sports nut who's grown to resent how Tip's calculated swagger shrinks him into a sidekick.

Pitbull-stubborn and type-one diabetic, Phife becomes the movie's wounded dark horse, enduring a desperately needed kidney transplant, calling his boyhood buddy a "control freak," and venting about their "love/hate relationship."

At one point during a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour, Phife gives Tip the silent treatment so resolutely that an awkward shouting match ensues, with Ali and Tribe's spiritual backbone Jarobi White left ducking the crossfire. Despite the passive-aggressive bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hop's Some Kind of Monster.

And instead of editing his subjects into pre-ordained music biz roles, Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, both letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcase--as former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, "I love Q-Tip, but he's a fucking nut."

It's easy to see how a control-freak perfectionist would mistake such character assessment for assassination. It's not, and even a fanboy poseur like Michael Rapaport knows that.

--Camille Dodero

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