Almost one year ago, the guys who once declared that there would be no sleep till Brooklyn vaulted on stage at the local Kings Theater and proceeded to take audiences on a raucous three-and-a-half-hour-long exploration of all things Beastie Boys. With vintage pictures, archival footage and audio samples projected on a large screen behind them, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond detailed how three middle-class weirdos in gritty New York City in the 1970s and 80s became beloved hip-hop groundbreakers.
Spike Jonze, who directed that two-man show, has distilled it into a tight (well, tighter) 119-minute set and repackaged it as a Beastie Boys Story: A Live Documentary. Juicy tidbits and anecdotes — they once played at Stage 54 in front of a young Brooke Shields! They treated their American Bandstand gig as a joke! — are still intact. And rest assured that the presence of the late, great Adam Yauch (who died of cancer in 2012 at age 47) is deeply felt in every moment. But while the audience that night could immerse themselves into the band’s narrative, the format doesn’t quite transition to a small screen. If you want up-close intimacy and thought-provoking reflection, better to read Beastie Boys Rock, the info-packed 2018 memoir on which the show is based.
Of course, one could argue that the Beastie Boys aren’t the types to participate in a prototypical documentary in which they recline in leather-upholstered armchairs and wax about their mistakes. Their musical evolution aside, these guys have always been proud to be irreverent renegades. Horovitz and Diamond set this tone from the start as they deliver self-deprecating jokes about the Boys’ formation. They were just teens when they met on the chaotic punk rock scene and subsequently decided to form a band with future Luscious Jackson member Kate Shellenbach. Yauch was the one that coined the name Beastie Boys — an acronym for Boys Entering Anarchist States Towards Inner Excellence. “It was ridiculous and inaccurate!” Horovitz exclaims, noting the superfluous use of “boy” and, um, the fact that Shellenbach isn’t one. (He laments that the guys soon kicked her out.)
Their rise to stardom is as unlikely as it gets in the music industry. Horovitz and Diamond exude a loose energy and get a kick out of relaying how they hooked up with producer Rick Rubin (then a wrestling-lovin’ DJ at NYU) and manager Russell Simmons. The founder of Def Jam booked them as an opening act for Madonna on her 1985 Like a Virgin Tour because of a misunderstanding with her manager Freddy DeMann who really wanted the Fat Boys (ha!). They admit to being loud-mouth jerks to audiences. Cut to a photo of prepubescent girls dressed in lacy headbands and chunky jewelry like mini-Madonnas. And their breakout 1987 song “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party)”? A last-minute insertion on the multi-platinum-selling License to Ill, designed to mock fraternity culture.
And whereas most bands in the documentary spotlight follow a rise-and-fall-and-rise trajectory thanks to rampant drug use, poor business decisions, rampant drug use, fragile egos, internal squabbling over money and did I mention the rampant drug use, the Beastie Boys experienced sustained unparalleled success and remained a tight unit. Their low point is a hilarious one, as evidenced by Horovitz’ role in the 1989 flop Lost Angels. Diamond asks Jonze to replay one particularly embarrassing scene on a loop. Otherwise, it’s a parade of hits and acclaim thanks to the seminal albums Paul’s Boutique (1989), Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1996) and Hello Nasty (1998). They learned to play instruments, amped up the effort into their stage shows and proceeded to become one of the top-selling rap groups in history. (They were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2012.)
The talented Oscar-nominated Jonze is never seen on camera, but he’s an integral part of this history. Before he directed off-beat classics Being John Malkovich, Adaptation and Her, he helmed four videos for the group — including the 70s-cop-show-spoof “Sabotage,” one of the all-time greats. In fact, when Jonze lost an award at the 1994 VMAs, Yauch, dressed as alter-ego Nathaniel Hornblower, crashed the stage and pulled a Kanye West. (The clip is played in its entirety.) Fans of Jonze’s visionary work will be and should be mildly disappointed that he didn’t put an innovative spin on his first film in seven years; instead, his affection and respect for his friends is what shines through in each frame.
Indeed, Horovitz and Diamond are literally front and center in what amounts to be part comedy special, part motivational TED talk and part open-mic Moth storySLAM. And the two musicians excel at all the above. They trade anecdotes with eloquent warmth and humor, never once resorting to “you-had-to-be-there” punchlines. They also present the band in all its warts-and-all nuances, expressing sincere regret for their crude dismissal of the opposite sex. (At one point, Horovitz narrates the reductive lyrics for their 1987 hit “Girls” in shame.) These Boys are now mature middle-aged husbands and fathers, having long ago embraced social progression. Recalling cynical critics who once doubted their newfound intentions, Horovitz cites one of his favorite quotes from Yauch: “I’d rather be a hypocrite than be the same forever.”
That’s one of several poignant moments dedicated to the Beastie Boys’ heart and soul. And if nothing else, this film serves as a heartfelt tribute and memorial to a fallen comrade. As Horovitz and Diamond explain it, Yauch was the one who stirred the pot of mayhem, who came up with the bassline for “Sabotage,” who became a Buddhist and took it upon himself to create the Tibetan Freedom Concert. A muted Horovitz is in tears when recalling the 2009 Bonnaroo concert that would be the trio’s last time on stage together. He starkly notes, “When Adam died, we stopped being a band.” Ah, but their amazing, exhilarating story will endure till Brooklyn . . . and beyond.
The Beastie Boys Story will be available to stream on Apple TV+ starting Friday, April 24
Also published on Medium.