Spike Jonze’s new documentary, “Beastie Boys Story,” is an unconventional rock doc about the trio of merry hip-hop punksters who created their own sound over three decades and became a generation-defining band. Much like the Beastie Boys themselves, the film is a blast of energy, humor and catharsis, a sheer joy that’s also imbued with poignancy and pathos. And in its nontraditional form, it reveals something essential about the Beastie Boys and the key to their unique, ever-evolving sound: collaboration.
Filmed in front of a live audience at the Kings Theater in Brooklyn, the documentary is a filmed version of a staged storytelling show hosted by Mike D (Michael Diamond) and Ad-Rock (Adam Horovitz), the surviving Beasties (Adam Yauch aka MCA died of cancer in 2012 at the age of 47). It’s a casual, fun slideshow with Mike and Adam, who share the story of their friendship and career, along with photos and archival footage. Their hits rock the house as the two MCs recount the tale of how the Beastie Boys came together as young punk kids growing up in New York City in the early ’80s and found their sound over years of experimentation, trial and error, and painful periods of growth.
Early on, a production goof becomes a running gag, as Horovitz calls out Jonze for failing to project a visual punchline, and Jonze comes on over the PA system as a “voice of God,” discussing whether or not to include it. It’s a clever, deliberate acknowledgment of the filmmaking apparatus, revealing the cameras and teleprompter screens, reminding the audience that this is a construction in its own imperfect way.
Revealing the film’s own “made-ness” falls in line with the story’s thesis, which is in large part about the Beastie Boys’ struggle to find and establish their own voice, especially after the runaway success of “License to Ill,” shepherded by Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, driven by goofball party rock parody hit “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party).” Recoiling from the industry, they found it by following their muses and riding waves of creativity. They used what was around them to shape their sound: deep cut samples, pop culture references, inside jokes, different instruments and vocal styles, spiritual quests, and at the center of it all, their friendship and the respect for each other that created the safe space for experimentation and growth.
The live performance becomes a crucial element in the film’s exploration of memory, nostalgia and regret. We see Mike and Adam react in real time to photos and video of themselves with a mix of affection, fondness and embarrassment. “I love that photo of you,” Adam tells Mike, while Mike asks Jonze to play back a clip of Adam’s performance in a cheesy ’80s movie. They have a loose, playful dynamic together, and as we see who they were then, we also get to see who they are now: Horovitz rueful and sometimes somber, yet still able to immediately turn on the brash Ad-Rock persona; Mike is goofy and prone to silly, yet accurate vocal impersonations.
The power of the project lies in its willingness to hold the beloved musicians simultaneously as their past and present selves, and to share that with fans who joined them for their musical, philosophical and political journey, having grown and changed, too. “Beastie Boys Story” is so much more than just the story of the Beastie Boys: It’s a treatise on the tragedy and beauty of time, loss and memory, and one of the purest celebrations of friendship and creativity.