April 25, 2011

Beats, Rhymes And Life: The Travels Of A Tribe Called Quest (A Review), 2011 Tribeca Film Festival

A word to the wise - Those wishing to make a documentary about live human beings should get ready for a potentially rough ride. They risk a post-production drama that may overshadow the film and thus leave those of us who would like to talk about the film itself to force such discussions into a lengthy footnote (see footnote).

This is not entirely the situation of Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, receiving its New York premiere at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and directed by actor Michael Rapaport, but according to some media reports, some of it may be true. Unfortunate, but not surprising. The documentary tells the twenty-plus-year story of the influential jazz-influenced hip hop group, A Tribe Called Quest, leaning heavily on the remembrances and sometimes divergent points of view of its four members - Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White.

A Tribe Called Quest emerged out of a time and place when music literally started on the streets and in the parks of the city, with live tape players broadcasting improvised rhythms and rap.  

Audience members with some objectivity, unlike the band members who may be too close for such a perspective, should quickly glean the divergent personalities and group dynamics, understanding what brought the four together and what kinds of personal tensions may have driven them apart.

It's a good film and well-worth seeing, especially for contemporary music history in New York. Yet, its real strength rests in allowing the central players involved, in addition to the commentary from the likes of Kanye West, Red Alert, the Beastie Boys, Moby, and Mos Def, to talk about their moment in hip hop, all the while revealing a universal story about the life and demise of a band. Good specifics make for the best universality. It borders on cliché, for sure.

Beats, Rhymes & Life. Left to Right: Phife Dawg, Q-Tip, and Jarobi White.
Photo by Robert Benavides, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.

Taking as its point of departure a 2008 reunion concert in Seattle, the film looks back to the beginnings of the group in St. Albans in Queens in the mid-1980s. A Tribe Called Quest emerged out of a time and place when music literally started on the streets and in the parks of the city, with live tape players broadcasting improvised rhythms and rap. The sounds of the city's inventiveness was infectious.

Q-Tip, a charismatic performer who soaked in every genre of music; Ali Shaheed Muhammad, a thoughtful and creative DJ; Phife Dawg, a master lyricist whose struggle with diabetes creates one of the film's narrative arcs; and Jarobi White, considered to be the group's soul and spirit but who left the group early, took the music to a new place. Together, the group helped shape a new jazz-infused, liberating Afrocentrist music sound, a positive affirmation of culture and community that set itself in counterpoint to gangsta rap. It was a musical movement that came from the city and was of the city, a Brooklyn and Queens moment merging with the hip hop scene evolving in the Bronx, blended with an extraordinary time of cultural creativity at Murry Bergtraum High School for Business Careers in Lower Manhattan, where Q-Tip and Phife Dawg met in high school.

ATCQ made five albums from 1990 to 1998, each evolving musically. They experimented with sampling an enormous range of musical styles, propelling the group into an even greater fusion of rap, jazz, and world music. Their acclaimed album Low End Theory from 1991 features not only throbbing drum beats but also Ron Carter on bass on one track. With Phife and Q-Tip bouncing back and forth, the work achieved new heights in hip hop creativity. Alt hip hop had arrived. As they reminisce about the times on film, never together and most frequently as individuals, we can feel their great discovery of one another through musical and personal companionship. Pity it didn't last.

See Tribeca Film Festival website for ticket information.

Wed, Apr 27, 6 p.m. BMCC Tribeca PAC
Thu, Apr 28, 1 p.m. AMC Loews Village 7 - 2

Related: New York, New York Films at the 10th Tribeca Film Festival.

Footnote: The simple version goes like this: A filmmaker develops a passion about the fascinating story of a living subject. The subject agrees to be filmed. The filmmaker and subject have some sort of initial agreement about boundaries. The filming starts. The subject starts showing vulnerabilities and raises questions. Filming ends, and the post-production goes on for months. Relationships change, and anxieties on both parts shift into a higher gear. The filmmaker edits their subject's heartfelt complex story and various smaller dramas, years in the making, into approximately 90 minutes. The subject sees a rough cut or a trailer and becomes alarmed. The initial agreements are revisited. Perhaps, the subject would like to exercise some control over the final document or demand more credit. Now imagine that simple story involves multiple subjects, like four of them, with a long intertwined history. Imagine that they are a band. Oh, and we might as well toss in added complications of race and perception, even when that might be the least of it. In short - good luck, documentary filmmaker. Good luck, subjects.
For a look behind the scenes, read in Rolling Stone, "A Tribe Called Quest Documentary Director Michael Rapaport Opens Up About Controversial Film" by Jennifer Vineyard, April 21, 2011.

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