Beats, Rhymes & Life: Film Review

A Tribe Called Quest - Rock The Bells - 2010
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Seminal hip-hop act gets due praise in solid bio-doc.

Director Michael Rapaport grabs hold of the interpersonal turmoil between members that ultimately destroyed the group.

PARK CITY — Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition — Celebrating one of hip-hop's seminal groups, Beats, Rhymes & Life offers bio and bass, recalling a period when the art form was just coming into its own. Though it may not have much of an audience beyond the band's fan base, it offers enough context to serve as a primer on the hugely influential Native Tongues clique and should have life on home-vid.

As director (and a longtime fan), actor Michael Rapaport starts with footage of a 2008 reunion tour before transporting us to the Queens of over two decades ago, where childhood friends soon to be known as Phife Dawg and Q-Tip started rhyming in the shadow of local pioneers Run-D.M.C. Rapaport visits the business-careers high school that proved to be a hotbed of rap talent, kicking off a fairly straight chronology of Tribe's emergence as a group.

Live performance footage from the early years is spotty, but MTV videos capture the vibe better, showing artists who distinguished themselves with an easygoing humor which contrasted dramatically with gangsta rap and -- along with Tribe's inventive sampling of vintage jazz records -- made them stars.

Ample interviews with peers and followers make the case for the group's legacy. While some might feel the film elevates them above such similarly important acts as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers, Rapaport does his best to spread the love around.

The film slowly tightens on interpersonal conflict that eventually destroyed the group, using ample present-day interviews (including semi-neutral testimony from Tribe members Ali Shaheed Mohammed and Jarobi White) and a brief clip of backstage bickering to illustrate the usual ego issues.

Wrapping up with an apparently peaceful 2010 reunion in Japan, the film ends by noting, teasingly, that the long-dormant group still owes one more album to Jive Records.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, U.S. Documentary Competition
Production Company: Rival Pictures and Beats, Rhymes and Fights Productions LLC
Director: Michael Rapaport
Producers: Edward Parks, Michael Rapaport, Frank Mele, Eric Matthies, Robert Benavides, Debra Koffler, ATCQ, Bob Teitel
Director of photography: Robert Benavides
Music: Madlib
Editors: Lenny Mesina, AJ Schnack
Sales: Ben Weiss, Paradigm; Steven C. Beer, GT Law, Greenberg Traurig, LLP
No rating, 98 minutes