Risking making broad generalizations, in general there seems to be two types of music documentaries. There’s the concert film, be it the brilliantly edited immersion of Stop Making Sense or the “in the moment” capturing of a historical event like The Last Waltz. There’s also the documentary film, one that has a goal of informing the audience about the life of a musician that includes archive footage and a mix of new and historical interviews.
With Beastie Boys Story, Spike Jonze has made an amalgamation of both of these concepts, crafting an introspective narrative in which surviving bandmates Adam Horovitz and Michael Diamond reflect on their entire career, from their early days playing local clubs to their final performance prior to the death of Adam Yauch. The catch is that these personal reflections weren’t made in a studio, but in front of a series of live audiences in Brooklyn’s Kings Theater last year, in which Horovitz and Diamond bared their life, regrets, and legacy with the accompaniment of interactive documentary footage.
The brilliance of this approach is that Jonze captures all the intimacy of a live performance, even if Horovitz and Diamond aren’t performing their music. They are performing, however, as their reflections aren’t off the cuff ramblings, but finely tuned prose (co-written by Jonze) that summarizes the story of the main chapters in their lives into truisms about the changes they experienced. Even if the transitions between chapters are often played for laughs through the banter between Horovitz and Diamond, it does give the live performance a structured approach that avoids indulging in any one section.
But structure doesn’t mean it’s static, as the interactive nature allows for moments of spontaneity; Horovitz and Diamond will cut each other off, insert jokes that aren’t in the script, and even call out Jonze himself for any awkward transitions or imprecise cues. Not only does this enforce the feeling that you’re watching two old friends look back on old times, but it justifies the words themselves because it feels as if these guys are speaking from the heart, and not a teleprompter. A key final moment, in which Horovitz can barely make it through a tearful soliloquy about Yauch’s passing, is the type of emotional honesty that simply couldn’t exist in a traditional documentary interview.
It’s also impressive that the film is able to push past the inherent nostalgia. They’re accompanied by a crowd who clearly loves this group; they’ll cheer for even the minor players within the Beastie Boys mythology, they’ll recite lyrics from even the most obscure songs, and they’ll fill the theater with thunderous applause as Horovitz and Diamond tease the story of how they composed “Sabotage.” It’s exciting to feel like you’re a part of this crowd and community, but Horovitz and Diamond are still able to speak candidly about the more troubled periods in their lives.
While there’s an obvious amount of gloss surrounding certain elements of the narrative, namely the group’s initial abandonment of Kate Schellenbach and their contract disputes with Russell Simmons, they’re still gifted moments of contemplation from Horovitz and Diamond; there’s no point in which the two remise about the things that could have been, but rather they blatantly acknowledge everything that happened.
The overriding theme of the show is how the Beastie Boys crafted, curated, and ultimately evolved their identity, and the chaptered approach allows Horovitz and Diamond to indulge in each era without looking back at it with rose-tinted glasses. They acknowledge that they started as a group of friends that just tried to make each other laugh, and while they’re able to laugh at early pranks and aggression, they don’t celebrate those same attitudes. Similarly, they look at how their “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!)” era ended up confusing their perception about whether they were parodying or celebrating bro culture.
While the reflections about how the group grew to be more progressive can often feel artificial, they’re made authentic by the personal anecdotes that Horovitz shares. When asked about whether the “Right to Party” guys were hypocrites to call on men to be better, Horovitz remarks “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person I used to be.” It’s a rather easy way to make up for years of uncomfortable behavior, but it’s told with a conviction from Horovitz that feels like he believes what he’s saying.
Between the kinetic energy of recording a new album or the absurdity of the creative process, the show captures an “aw shucks” sensibility from Horovitz and Diamond, who are able to acknowledge how moments that didn’t seem novel at the time ended up being monumental. There’s a formal significance in the amount of archive footage available from the adolescent days, MTV videos, interviews, and the random goofy photos in between, but it’s the raw and personal touch from two guys playing themselves that makes Beastie Boys Story such an infectiously joyous experience. Grade: A-