Monday, July 18, 2011

Beats, Rhymes, and Life: Not a Documentary, But An Irresponsible Disservice


Recently, I had the chance to view Beats, Rhymes, and Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, the new documentary directed by actor Michael Rapaport. You’ll likely remember him from his roles as “Zack” in Zebrahead (1992); “Remy” from Higher Learning (1995); or from Spike Lee’s film Bamboozled (2000); where he portrayed “Mr. Thomas Dunwitty,” the racist, self-centered, and egotistical television producer who believed he knew black people better than they knew themselves.

Like most folk my age who love hip hop—the culture and the music — I have an affinity for what A Tribe Called Quest (ATCQ) brought to our lives. For a self-professed “brainy jock” (cool term for nerd who played sports) like myself, ATCQ was part of my life’s soundtrack. I distinctly remember when each album dropped and what I was doing when the day I purchased it. All five albums mean something different to me—though some are better than others. Like most fans I can have an intense debate about why I believe The Low End Theory was the masterpiece of their discography vs. Midnight Marauders, much in the same way folk argue over sports or politics. Thus, it was with the greatest anticipation I went to see Rapaport’s documentary.



I entered the theater like a Star Wars or Harry Potter fan—all decked out in my ATCQ gear, rocking my Midnight Marauders tee and a super fresh pair of Air Jordan Retro Ones that were dedicated to the group (my most coveted pair of sneaks). I sat down ready to see what I hoped was a reliving of some old musical memories and a telling of Tribe’s story by another fan—Michael Rapaport. Unfortunately, from the very outset of the film Rapaport shows his hand. He is out to sell the story of family feud and personal beef. The documentary begins by looking at the rift between Q-Tip and Phife—an unfortunate, sad, and self-serving mistake.



As a historian, this is a mistake I’m intimately familiar with and must always be cautious of in my own writing. As juicy as personal details are, one always has to resist the temptation to allow them to drive the analysis. Why? Because history is not about sensationalizing subject(s). When that occurs it ceases to be history and becomes tabloid-esque sensationalism. For instance, many have critiqued and criticized the late Professor Manning Marable for his recent biography of Malcolm X entitled, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention. Scores of folk find Marable’s scholarship slanderous because they believe he is sensationalizing aspects of Brother Malcolm’s private life. I’m not saying exclude private details or conflicts, because they are important, but they should not be the driving force of the story you tell.

Documentarians face a similar challenge. Like historians, they have to be able to provide a narrative that explores the nuances of their subject without allowing them to overpower the larger story. A good documentary should leave the viewer with a fuller understanding of the inner workings and outside influences that inform why this subject’s story is worthy of telling. It is not about taking sides, but providing a three-dimensional view of your subject matter.

Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, or the complex nature of it, is no secret. It has never been. Any fan has known that for years. We all have family issues. We all have functional levels of dysfunction. Those issues however, do not have to be put on display to understand how the persons in that family interact. Instead, Rapaport seems to have let his fictional character “Mr. Dunwitty” take charge of directing.

It was great to reminisce about A Tribe Called Quest, but Mr. Rapaport did Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and hip hop a disservice. What he directed is not a documentary. Sensationalized, with a few moments of welcome nostalgia for fans like myself, it is a patchwork quilt of a film —more akin to reality shows on the family of Viacom networks.

Part of the problem is Rapaport’s use of external sources — or lack there of. I found it incredibly odd that he used not one journalist or scholar that could capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture. Hell, I would have even liked to hear from fans on the street giving their reflections of the group during their 1990s reign.

The absence of journalists from The Source, VIBE, or The Village Voice from that era is at the very least irresponsible. During the late 1980s and the entire decade of the 1990s an argument can be made that journalists were just as integral to the development and analysis of hip-hop as the artists themselves. Their insight, even on a small scale, would have been a great supplement to artist interviews and help to contextualize the Native Tongues Movement.

One of the gross missteps of the movie, and my biggest critique, is that Rapaport did not devote more time to the most important thing about ATCQ — the music. More time should have been spent examining the five albums that A Tribe Called Quest created. What Rapaport gave us was akin to making a documentary about The Beatles that focuses solely on the deteriorating relationship between Paul McCartney and John Lennon. If Rapaport set out to make a film about Q-Tip and Phife’s relationship, then mission accomplished. If the goal was to make a documentary about A Tribe Called Quest, then it is a miserable failure.

15 comments:

4coloredgirls said...

Totally dig your suggestion about more context. I think the film begins with the group's conflict because so many fans have longed for the group to reunite. I don't think the conflict took over the film however. I like that (spoiler alert!) it ended with them together, on tour, and loving one another in spite of their artistic and communicative differences. Maybe I got caught up in the nostalgia ...

ReelAphro said...

The film that you wanted to see was not the film that Rapaport wanted to make.

Did you hear about Q-Tips resistance to the film? Just google it; tons of articles come up about it.

Did you stay for the credits? I always stay and one thing I noticed was that at the end of the credits it was produced by "Beats, Rhymes & FIGHTS" LLC. From what I understand, that was the initial title for the film.

I gathered that that was ALWAYS the angle. I don't know if I totally agree with the use of the critics. Especially when the film wasn't about the music as much as it was about the rift.

I didn't have any high hopes for the film, especially with Rapaport behind the lens. It's something about "others" telling our stories that we have to be mindful of.

I left the theater a bit dismayed that we heard the frustrations of Phife and Q-Tip equally. It made Q-Tip to be the villain. When, within the film, Q-Tip shared that he was always pulling Phife to commit to the group.

Langston said...

I agree with your suggestion that more time should have been devoted to music. I would have love to see them talk about their process as well as other figures (Extra P, Jay Dee) involved in their music.

That being said, I thought the documentary was solid. As a feature documentary, I did not expect it to be as in-depth as a scholarly doc. Michael Rapaport wanted to tell a story about his favorite group and he did so. It was a good look into their personal lives and group dynamics.

I'm not sure how this movie was at all a disservice.

AprilReign said...

As the saying goes, "this is why we can't have nice things."

Was the documentary perfect? No, but what is? I've seen the film twice, and I read your blog in between screenings, so it was fresh in my mind during the second viewing. More emphasis on the music would have been great, but let's remember that ATCQ hasn't released an album since 1998. Obviously, much has happened in the past 13 years, and because there was no new music, the film focused on the interpersonal relationships of the group.

There was discussion about how the first album was made, the sophomore jinx, and so on. There were thoughts from contemporary artists regarding the influence of the group. But if you do the math, ATCQ has been apart either as much as, or more than, they have been together with respect to making music.

Let's also remember that it is important that this film makes money and finds an audience, so that films like it can be made about other groups. So those of us who have followed ATCQ from the beginning could probably sit through 8 hours dissecting every cut on each album and listen to scholars wax poetic about this and that. But if you're also trying to *sell* this movie to the younger generation who were children when the albums were released, it's important to have names they recognize on the screen (Pharrell, Questlove, Beastie Boys, etc.).

Denigrating the movie because it's not what you wanted to see only serves to fuel the discussion of whether these types of films should be made at all. This is the first full-length hip hop documentary of which I'm aware. There should be more. Trashing this one and highlighting its flaws will prevent that from happening.

P.S. I take serious issue with the fact that you do not consider Questlove a hip hop scholar. His knowledge could fill tomes and, I would argue, is unparalleled to anyone in our generation.

pushnevahda said...

I need to see examples of Rapaport's disservice, more pointed analysis of the documentary's shortcomings. Provide us with examples of the docs failures, and then your own analysis of that particular point. Otherwise, I am left with the feeling that you disagree with the documentary simply because its director is a white guy. And that's not good enough, nor is that a fair critique. You're connecting Rapaport to a "racist, self-centered, and egotistical" character (brilliantly executed by MR), and then you suggest that sensationalism cannot drive any decent, respectable analysis. But that is exactly what this piece is doing. We see no engagement with the real beef you have with MRs documentary. Certainly, Rapaport could've consulted with those contemporary voices and opinions (the Source, Vibe, Village Voice), or even the common ordinary folk who bought and respected the music, yet, you, too, could've listed some of those examples to strengthen that point and weaken Rapaport's intentions. (for the record, I do not think The Source would be a credible and respectable source for me because the opinions expressed are not critical, unbiased, unregulated or uncontrolled.)

I like the writing, and I understand your issue with the film, but I want to know more of why the film fails. If the film is an irresponsible disservice then tell us why. You tell us what MR does wrong with the film, and the subject's legacy, but you do not provide insight into what the film should have been. In other words, critique without suggestions is pointless. You wrote:

"Part of the problem is Rapaport’s use of external sources — or lack there of. I found it incredibly odd that he used not one journalist or scholar that could capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture. Hell, I would have even liked to hear from fans on the street giving their reflections of the group during their 1990s reign."

What are those external sources that Rapaport neglect? Who are those journalists and scholars that could've "capture the broader implications of what the group was able to create and the indelible mark they left on hip hop and popular culture"? What kinds of "insight" could Source and VIBE and Village Voice have provided to inform Rapaport's film better and more accurately? Again, why is the film a miserable failure?

Stanice Anderson said...

Seizing this opportunity to share that a new Simon & Schuster Novel Shatters Everything We Know...
The Resurrection of Nat Turner, Part One: The Witnesses by Sharon Ewell Foster is a fact-based epic that discredits the primary historical source document on Nat Turner, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a pamphlet published in 1831 by Turner's believed lawyer Thomas Gray-later turned into a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Styron. That document stated that Turner gave a statement of guilt to Gray, which was then read before the court.

Foster located the original handwritten trial transcripts, in which Turner, actually pled innocent and offered no confession. Gray was not mentioned in official court documents as Nat Turner's attorney.

"What I found puts everything we believe about Nat Turner and what happened in the uprising in question. Burdened with the truth, I feel a responsibility to share what I found-both good and bad. We've been laboring under a 180-year-old lie. This is an American story and the truth needs to be told. We are all witnesses. Nat Turner deserves his day in court," said Foster.

asian girl white guy said...

What I found puts everything we believe about Nat Turner and what happened in the uprising in question. Burdened with the truth, I feel a responsibility to share what I found-both good and bad. We've been laboring under a 180-year-old lie. This is an American story and the truth needs to be told. We are all witnesses. Nat Turner deserves his day in court," said Foster.

Anonymous said...

I did not know there was a riff between Q and Fif. Was there a disservice done to let fans know? No. Who else would this movie be for, if not for fans. We already know ATCQ music, so just restating that in the movie, that would have been a disservice. Explaining why the group is no more, would have been the only eye opener that fans would be interested in.

Now with that said, time to go down memory lane and play electric relaxation.

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Anonymous said...

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Gee Chee Vision said...

Excellent analysis NI. Unfortunately some folks can't catch what you're saying. If rappers were revered the way rock musicians are, Rapaport would've been hung from a flag pole.

You hit the nail on it's proverbial head with the comparison to the Beatles. Rock fans would not accept a documentary on the Beatles that focused on in house fights. Beatles are mythological in culture and nobody wants to see their mythologies torn apart with tabloid tripe.

People want the formula to artistic works not common everyday trash television. In fact Beatles fans are so much in denial to the problems between John & Paul that they place the source of conflict on Yoko.

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