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Strained Vibes, Excellent Scenario in Beats, Rhymes & Life

Michael Rapaport’s A Tribe Called Quest documentary eclipses the surrounding drama

Strained Vibes, Excellent Scenario in <i>Beats, Rhymes & Life</i>
Photo by Michael Rapaport, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Q-Tip, Phife Dawg and Ali Shaheed Muhammad

So much petty drama has clouded the release of Michael Rapaport’s A Tribe Called Quest documentary. One version of the backstory casts the first-time director as a doofus actor wannabe (arguably best known for his role as Phoebe’s boyfriend in Friends) who persuades the seminal, but privately splintered, hip-hop crew to participate in a consummate career doc. After two and a half years of the corny B-lister shadowing and interviewing the foursome (in gratingly affected street patois), the final product gets accepted to Sundance and suddenly the group’s de facto leader, Q-Tip, reneges his support via Twitter. The actor/director always seemed like an opportunistic jerk-off, so when three-fourths of ATCQ boycott Park City and later whine on MTV about an errant production email they received conspiring, “We’ll fuck them,” it’s not particularly surprising. Everybody knows you don’t trust a fanboy poseur.

The wrinkle in this retelling is that Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a phenomenal documentary. Making a “love letter” to his all-time favorite musicians, Rapaport devotes the film’s first half to deftly curated archival material, golden-age hip-hop perspectives from the likes of DJ Red Alert and Monie Love, and testimony from an impressive constellation of Tribe’s peers and pupils—from the Beastie Boys to Pharrell Williams to ?uestlove—on behalf of “the Miles Davis of hip-hop,” as the Roots’ Black Thought remembers the band’s initial influence. (Black Thought also hilariously calls ATCQ’s early kente-cloth and dashiki wardrobe “some real questionable-type shit.”)

The fawning is more deserved celebration than drooling hagiography. Then comes the film’s second half, which veers into cinema vérité, focusing on the disintegrated ties between boyhood friends Tip, who has evolved into dapper VH1 royalty, and his 20-year collaborator, Phife Dawg, a squeaky-voiced sports nut who’s grown to resent how Tip’s calculated swagger shrinks him into a sidekick. (“It’s Diana Ross and the Supremes” is how Phife casts Tip’s attitude to the rest of ATCQ. “I guess Ali [Shaheed Muhammad]’s Mary Wilson and I’m Florence Ballard? Get the fuck outta here.”) Pitbull-stubborn and type-one diabetic, Phife becomes the movie’s wounded dark horse, enduring a desperately needed kidney transplant, calling his boyhood buddy a “control freak,” and venting about their “love/hate relationship.” At one point during a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour, Phife gives Tip the silent treatment so resolutely that an awkward shouting match ensues, with Ali and Tribe’s spiritual backbone Jarobi White left ducking the crossfire.

A Tribe Called Quest, the early years
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
A Tribe Called Quest, the early years
Q-Tip and Rapaport on set
Courtesy Sony Pictures Classics
Q-Tip and Rapaport on set

Details

Beats, Rhymes, & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest
Directed by Michael Rapaport
Sony Pictures Classics
Opens July 8

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Despite the passive-aggressive bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hop’s Some Kind of Monster. (At one point, when Phife’s wife suggests band therapy, as Metallica underwent in that doc, he rebuffs her with, “I know what the problem is, I’m not paying for you to tell me nothing!”) And instead of editing his subjects into pre-ordained music biz roles, Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, both letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcase—as former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, “I love Q-Tip, but he’s a fucking nut.” It’s easy to see how a control-freak perfectionist would mistake such character assessment for assassination. It’s not, and even a fanboy poseur like Michael Rapaport knows that.

cdodero@villagevoice.com

 
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8 comments
Rob3junk
Rob3junk

Not a great actor, I suppose, but how does this make him a wanna-be poseur??? Maybe your predjudices as a film critic in a free newspaper is affecting your viewpoint? Just tell us about the movie, not your impressions of Michael Rappaprt...YOU are probably the opportunistic jerk off whenever, or IF you ever actualy meet your acting heroes...

Vernon Chandler
Vernon Chandler

Without Rappaport we thee fans of one of the greatest hip hop groups of all time would not have gotten this experience. If being a poseur gets us more glimpes at the dude who made me want to rap, Qtip, then pose on Mike, pose on.

Eupham
Eupham

Was rappaport a poseur when he was cast opposite 2pac in Gridlock?

Drewsef
Drewsef

This review in short: “Michael Rapaport is an asshole, a wannabe, and a poser whiteboy who thinks he knows something about hip-hop. We should all laugh at him and his career (he was on ‘Friends’! What a loser!). Michael Rapaport is a piece of shit and I hate him … oh yeah, and this movie he made is really amazing. You should totally go see it.”

Marchpip
Marchpip

uh, michael rappaport is a reasonably respected actor/comedian/new yorker who has been making his mark through his work long before you ever contrived to sound intelligent through affected music reviews, you fucking idiot.

redryder
redryder

you dumb fucking asshole. calling rappaort a poseur. a white dude that is into hip hop, grew up on hip hop and was growing up in ny when the golden age of was the fucking golden age. shut up. rappaport is as much hip hop as tribe, and as much of an egotistical ass as tip is and the the fact that rappaport was able to make the film in the first place is proof that he is not a poseur. Just because you are a white man that loves hip hop, that doesn't mean yu are a poseur, you elitist prick.

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