One of the many charming qualities about the Beastie Boys is that they could be you. If three dorky-looking Jewish white boys could break into rap music, let alone break barriers within the genre, maybe you could do something amazing too. No matter how lofty their ambitions were or how weird their music tastes got or how mature they became, the Beasties never stopped being grounded. They were music superstars with little flare and even less pomposity, so much so that their last documentary was technically directed by their fans. In fact, the only thing separating the group and the fans is that one of them holds microphones on a stage.
That stays the same in Beastie Boys Story, a new and much more professional documentary than 2006’s Awesome; I F***in’ Shot That!. For one, it’s not directed by wily New Yorkers in Madison Square Garden trying to get equal footage of the rap legends and drunk idiots. Longtime collaborator Spike Jonze, who directed the Beasties’ iconic music video for “Sabotage,” helms this career-spanning look at the three MCs on the go from scrappy punks to party boys to enlightened musicians over two decades. But since this is the Beasties and damn the ordinary, Beastie Boys Story features Michael Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) on stage at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn recounting the group’s formation and evolution with photos, video edits and their music projecting behind them.
So yes, Beastie Boys Story is essentially a two-hour TED Talk with two 50-something hipsters talking about their glory days. Which, yes, sounds incredibly ironic for the once-rebellious rap group and miserable to watch. At the start, Jonze’s formula is flawed for a few reasons. For one, the movie is entirely on Mike D and Ad-Rock with old interview clips from the late Adam Yauch (MCA) completing the group picture. There are plenty of other names in the Beastie Boys’ story, including License to Ill producer Rick Rubin, ex-drummer Kate Schellenbach and longtime musician Money Mark. None of those people or anyone else outside the core trio are interviewed for the documentary, leaving a lot of further color of the Beasties’ story untouched. There’s also something very rigid about the presentation, what with a few planned comedic moments that border on cringe and the two Beasties following a teleprompter. Given how Jonze usually thinks outside the box when it comes to his films (especially with the Beasties), the execution feels more like a festival Q&A rather than a fresh project. Even the main story of the doc’s subject is incomplete, with Mike and Ad-Rock only discussing the group’s musical history up to 1998’s Hello Nasty. This leaves out the group’s 2004 old-school tribute To the 5 Boroughs and how the six-year break between records came about and melted away. It also forgoes the group’s final studio album, 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two and how they felt it left their musical legacy.
Yet for all the flaws in the presentation, the doc’s secret weapon is its subject matter. It may be the abridged version, but the story of the Beastie Boys remains a fascinating one. It’s amazing how many photos and footage Mike D and Ad-Rock preserved of their early days as a goofy teenage hardcore band to becoming rappers out of admiration for the medium and sheer force of personality. They’re also not afraid to put their legacy into question as they bluntly distance themselves from the immature douchebaggery of their lyrics on License to Ill and the frat boy fans that came with its success. Most of the doc is afforded to that album’s genesis and the musical evolution the group went through to make 1989’s Paul’s Boutique and 1992’s Check Your Head, likely the albums the group are most proud of. But even in their lowest moments, Mike D and Ad-Rock have a jubilant fondness for their history they express more and more as the two-hour documentary rolls along. Even when Ad-Rock fights through tears talking about MCA, who died from cancer in 2012, he does it with pride for his best friend who left such a huge impact on his life. There’s hardly any bitterness or hate coming from him and Mike D looking back and that warm feeling emanates from the entire project.
Given the pedigree of its director and subject matter, Beastie Boys Story is rather disappointing for its lack of ambition and basic delivery. That doesn’t make it boring or unenjoyable to watch, the Beastie Boys have far too much personality to be either of those things. If anything, the documentary is a comforting form of closure for the group’s legacy. Mike D and Ad-Rock have made it clear they’re not continuing Beastie Boys without MCA but have no problem clarifying what they did and why they did it (this doc and 2018’s Beastie Boys Book being proof). If Beastie Boys Story is flawed, at least it comes from the heart with all of the love and respect to the end.