The story of A Tribe Called Quest is a common one among music acts. Childhood friends grow up, form a group and become famous recording artists; then one of the members rises above others in terms of fame or ego, they have a falling out and the group breaks up. Oftentimes, as is the case with Tribe, the longtime pals end up estranged. As Tribe rapper Phife Dawg reminds us, it's the same thing that happened with the Supremes and the Jackson 5.
In spite of its familiar overlying narrative, though, the new documentary about the rap group, lengthily titled 'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest,' is still an excellent look at the past, present and possible future of one of the most influential hip hop acts of all time. Directed very inquisitively and skillfully by actor-turned-filmmaker Michael Rapaport ('True Romance'), it starts out rather conventionally and builds into one of the most engaging music docs in years.
'Beats' predominantly follows a chronological oral history format with members of Tribe and other figures associated with their story recalling the events up to and during their successful career (with Rapaport's voice occasionally heard asking questions) before disbanding in 1998. Sprinkled throughout are current looks at the lives of rappers Q-Tip and Phife and to a lesser extent DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad (and to an even lesse extent, rapper Jarobi White). And of course there is the great music, much of which is cued when the rhymes are biographically appropriate.
More than any other lyric, "When's the last time you heard a funky diabetic?" is of great significance once it prompts a focus on Phife's history with Type 1 diabetes and how it affected the group. It may seem tame as far as music biopics go that the group's only apparent addiction "trouble" was Phife's sugar habit and the only life-threatening issue is with his lifelong disease. But diabetes, as the film respectfully shows us, is in fact a very serious matter. In that way, 'Beats' almost ventures into awareness doc territory.
Obviously fans of A Tribe Called Quest are going to appreciate and enjoy this documentary, but as merely a minor follower of their music I think I can attest that it transcends that base audience. Once Rapaport brings us up to speed with more recently shot footage covering a behind the scenes peek at Tribe's participation in the 2008 Rock the Bells tour, the confrontational moments have a dramatic power not unlike those seen in Ondi Timoner's widely accessible 'Dig!'
As with many documentaries, though, 'Beats' may skew towards drama over truth, and the fact that Q-Tip has been publicly unsupportive of the film is clearly evidence that either we're not getting the full story or we're given only a certain perspective on it. Had the rapper not been so vocal about his disagreements with Rapaport I might not have noticed that it's possibly a little too much on the side of Phife with the falling-out stuff and the sympathetic focus on his disease. There is definitely more attention given to Phife's comments on the strife, but as he says in the film, it's not about disrespecting Q-Tip, it's just documentary. Exactly.