Sundance Review: Beats, Rhymes & Life

I went into Beats, Rhymes and Life with extreme trepidation. Like many people of my generation A Tribe Called Quest hold an extremely special place in our hearts and were a huge component to the soundtrack of our youth. I was uneasy about the film being made at all; any film about a band that means so much to a huge group of people has high expectations to meet and has a near impossible task of pleasing everyone. Often these films can fall short of the mark, and where a film on any other subject would be allowed certain leeway, documentaries of this nature take on extra emotion-filled criticism.

Beats, Rhymes and Life is very brave in its approach as it aims to cover so many bases when it comes to the group’s history, dynamics and cultural significance. The structure simultaneously covers the history of the group and where they stand today in terms of their relationships and status of their careers. Through numerous interviews with each member you gain an intimate sense of their experience within A Tribe Called Quest but also who they are as people. It is an absolute joy to hear Q-Tip describing his love for certain aspects of music while record shopping, Phife’s absolute obsession with sports of any kind, and Jarobi’s second career in culinary arts – an insight that helps to explain the current dynamic in the group so far down their twenty year career.

The film has just the right amount of every aspect you want from a music doc: from amazing concert footage from raw early days to present monumental performances, with comments from other artists influenced by their music. Every great music documentary leaves you with a desire to listen to their music again instantly afterwards and every time one of their songs began during the film you desperately want to hear more.

Beats, Rhymes and Life is obviously made with a huge amount of love and this really shows, but, at the same time, it is impressive the way it doesn’t shy away from delving into the tough issues. The conflict in the band, over time and to present day, is shown in depth and you hear the complaints and difficulties in Phife’s and Q-Tip’s relationship through extremely candid and honest interviews.

As a fan I really felt that first-time director Michael Rapaport truly succeeded with his portrayal of this iconic story. The background and history of the group is extensive and fascinating, and the interviews with other artists and contemporaries really help to explain the context of their impact on the world of hip hop. Seeing many of the biggest hip hop artists today being so enthusiastic and, frankly, geeky about their response to the release of each album was extremely fun and endearing to watch.

My favourite aspect to the film, however, was hearing the group describe the various ways they developed their love for music and how they put their albums together. Seeing Q-Tip taking an obscure record and finding the perfect sample and Phife being embarrassed about many of his lyrics and Ali Shaheed Muhammad explaining how he learned to DJ showed a side of their process which gives added significance to their music listening to it since watching the film.

I left the theater sad that the film was over, as every second of watching it was a joy. I would have gladly stayed and watched it from beginning to end again. It hits every mark that a fan would be looking for in a film of this kind, and I have no doubt this will be seen as a wonderful addition to the story of A Tribe Called Quest. At the same time, it is an extremely well-crafted music documentary that will appeal to people yet to discover the music, and will be a wonderful starting point.

The official website for Beats, Rhymes & Life is here