Beat, but not Broken

Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest ★★★
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Michael Rapaport
Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is an obvious labour of love for director Michael Rapaport. The film features an exhaustive range of interview and archival footage of the hit 1990s hip-hop group A Tribe Called Quest, so much so that celebrity interviewees like Busta Rhymes, Mos Def, and Freddy Rodriguez appear only in the final credits. Using this wide range of material, Rapaport focuses primarily upon the testimony of the members of Quest themselves – Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad – and other occasional collaborators. 

The Quest-centred nature of the film provides an informative report on the origins of the group, as well as their recording efforts, their sense of fame, and most notably their struggle to work together as a group for a whole decade. There is plenty of background information in Beats Rhymes & Life to answer adequately the questions “Who,” “What,” “Where,” and “How.” The “Why,” however, is glossed over in the unfocused assemblage of the extensive footage. Why the group matters in a historical or a cultural sense is something that Rapaport takes for granted.
In a way, Beats Rhymes & Life preaches to the converted. While Rapaport does an excellent job in documenting the origins of the group, not to mention their dissolution and eventual reunion, the film ultimately neglects to convey how the music itself spoke to a generation of fans. For a viewer unfamiliar with A Tribe Called Quest (such as myself), it would have been helpful to hear testimony about the importance of the group from a party other than those who were involved in the production of one of Quest’s top-selling records. Moreover, through the lack of focus with which the final cut relates the group’s success, Beats is unsuccessful in its attempt to convey biography, discography, and legacy.

Unlike other group-centric documentaries that have done this act greatly, like, say, the Dixie Chicks doc Shut up and Sing, which amazingly depicted the recording of the Chicks’ 2006 album Taking the Long Way along with a thorough analysis of the origins of the band and the cultural significance of said album, Beats merely gives a rote lesson. The film amounts to a mere first-person relay of “We Came, we sang, we conquered.” Whereas Shut up and Sing incited a passionate appropriation of the story of the Dixie Chicks, even for a non-fan (such as myself), to advocate for the right to free speech, Beats ultimately conjures up an afterthought of “So what?” The film will still delight fans of A Tribe Called Quest and provide more insight than one receives from a quick glance at Quest’s Wikipedia page, so one should nevertheless applaud Rapaport for telling Quest’s story within a passionate 97 minutes. Perhaps an extended cut for DVD will use Beats to tackle the greater aspects of the Tribe’s legacy.  

Beats Rhymes & Life plays at The Bytowne Thursday September 29th.