What if they made a Beastie Boys movie and it wasn’t any fun? If there were none of the rambunctious spirit that defined the New York trio’s music even after they abandoned the party-boy put-ons of License To Ill? If the surviving band members’ recollections of their journey from hardcore goof-offs to festival-headlining elder statesmen of hip-hop were hemmed in by a TelePrompter and an uncharacteristic stiltedness? What if Spike Jonze, Michael Diamond, and Adam Horovitz combined their rangy imaginations and their adventurous tastes for an anything-goes multimedia retrospective that blends cinema and live theater, and the results came out looking like a feature-length TED Talk?
There’s some relief in reporting that this is only partially the case with Beastie Boys Story, the new Jonze-directed documentary shot over a series of performances at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. There are moments where Jonze, Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D, a.k.a. Country Mike, a.k.a. Clarence), and Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock, a.k.a Shadrach, a.k.a. Vic Colfari as Bobby, “The Rookie”) go hilariously off-book: the director terrorizing his stars with a misfiring animation, or Diamond requesting encores of a humiliating clip from Horovitz’s attempt to break into the movie biz, Lost Angels. The whole thing culminates in a B-roll bouillabaisse, seven-plus minutes of outtakes where Ben Stiller, David Cross, and Steve Buscemi pose faux-confrontational questions from the audience, and Michael K. Williams goes I’m Not There in a staged reenactment of the time Bob Dylan pitched Diamond on playing a “pro-smoking concert.” Did we mention that, in this scenario, Diamond is played by a child wearing the type of polyester abomination the Beasties habitually “borrowed” from their landlords during the Paul’s Boutique sessions?
These are the sorts of images conjured by the phrase “a Beastie Boys documentary directed by Spike Jonze,” but they’re a disappointingly small slice of Beastie Boys Story. What’s streaming on Apple TV+ is instead a you-had-to-be-there document, the live-wire buzz apparent in those outtakes sapped in the editing room. The movie takes a 50-minute stroll to get through License To Ill and the pearl-clutching it inspired, only to sprint through the remainder of the group’s discography—hurdling over its last two albums entirely. The celebrity pop-ins may be relegated to the credits, but an onstage re-creation of the ad-hoc tape loop that gave “Rhymin’ And Stealin’” its thunderous John Bonham beat stays in. Pair that with the rogue animation cue and other projections integrated into the onstage proceedings, and the theatrical flourishes that make it into the final cut feel too fleeting. (There’s also a you-could’ve-been-there factor at play here: How those elements and Jonze’s larger-than-life shot compositions might’ve benefited from an IMAX run postponed by COVID-19 remains to be seen.)
Like the shaggy tome that inspired it, Beastie Boys Story was always going to be defined by an absence: The late Adam Yauch’s contributions to the oral history come from archival interview segments recorded prior to his death, in 2012. The film functions as a rolling memorial to the artist otherwise known as MCA, pulling most aggressively at the heartstrings when Horovitz reflects on the Beastie Boys’ final performance. He’s reading words that were previously published in Beastie Boys Book, but their poignancy still catches him. For that second, all the un-charming flaws of Beastie Boys Story—the skimming across the group’s history, the stiff recitations, the applause breaks—dissipate. It’s raw, honest, and real—qualities present in the work Yauch did with his two best friends, even when they were clowning on some poor chump who just wanted to know what it was like to be on tour with Foo Fighters and Sonic Youth.
It’s extremely telling that when Diamond and Horovitz sat down to translate their time as Beastie Boys into a memoir, it yielded a 600-page oddity that hops between literary genres, ropes in contributors from the worlds of comedy, food, and fashion, and frequently interrupts itself. The crazy quilt of late-20th-century pop culture that Beastie Boys Book sews together is occasionally on display in Beastie Boys Story, but the clashing tones and disparate influences and wild behind-the-scenes stories are a lot harder to balance in 120 minutes of screen time. Despite the unconventional live-on-stage packaging, the film succumbs to conventional rock-doc narratives of meteoric rises, precipitous falls, triumphant comebacks, and tragic conclusions.
But this is the Beastie Boys we’re talking about, so the meteoric rise still involves a giant inflatable wang (a prank misinterpreted and blown out of proportion—a perfect metaphor for License To Ill) and the triumphant comeback runs through the Tibetan Freedom Concerts. They never fully find a groove within their prepared remarks, but Diamond and Horovitz retain an inimitable chemistry and a way with a pop culture deep cut—what other multiplatinum pop act is going to pause mid-show to point out that they’ve dressed themselves like Walter Matthau in The Odd Couple? There’s not a lot of new insights or Criterion Collection-worthy filmmaking on offer, but for fans, the documentary will be a reminder of why they got into Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D in the first place. It’s all there in the outtakes: The Beastie Boys story is simply too big, too strange, too unwieldy for Beastie Boys Story to contain it.