By Jonathon Norcross
Spike Jonze is one of those filmmakers (like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee) whose filmmaking talent transcends all genres and formats. He’s directed iconic music videos (including “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys), stand-up specials, spellbinding narrative films, and wonderful short films (watch I’m Here as soon as you can).
Plus he’s been producing nonfiction projects for Vice for the last 13 years. So he’s an obvious and perfect choice to helm Beastie Boys Story, a documentary of Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond performing a two-man stage show at Kings Theater in Brooklyn in which they tell the story of their legendary rap group.
The stage show is an interesting alternative to the usual talking-head interviews and it offers mostly benefits but some drawbacks. It’s visually engaging and has live audience reactions but it’s also rehearsed and lacks some of the spontaneity that an interview might yield. Because Ad-Rock and Mike D are reading written text off a teleprompter the whole film, their voices are somewhat reminiscent of Robert Evans reading his memoir in The Kid Stays in The Picture.
In both films, we’re hearing a performance, not an interview, which means the narrative is much more in the subject’s control. This can allow the subject’s voice to come through more clearly but it can also mean that the subject is excused from any criticism. In this case, that’s not very concerning as the Beastie Boys are hardly controversial figures. It also helps greatly that Ad-Rock and Mike D are self-critical regarding their treatment of former bandmate Kate Schellenbach as well as their misogynistic lyrics in their 1987 track “Girls.” Not many musicians (or public figures of any kind) offer unsolicited self-criticism. Mike and Adam’s honesty goes a long way in making them seem like reliable narrators.
Mike and Adam are consistently entertaining and have obviously honed their storytelling abilities over the years. They have a fantastic rapport, are funny and self-deprecating, and even manage to be sincere and emotional at times. Fans of the Beastie Boys could happily listen to them talk about their lives and music for hours. Spike obviously knows how to treat Mike and Adam as both people and performers, and Beastie Boys Story constantly plays to their strengths.
Despite the fact that the whole film is written and rehearsed, it still feels genuine and intimate when Mike and Adam discuss the untimely death of their third bandmate and best friend Adam “MCA” Yauch. Spike probably gets much more out of that moment than any other director would and demonstrates yet again how good he is at transitioning seamlessly from goofy humor to heartbreaking sincerity.
Any Beastie Boys fan will enjoy this film, even though it covers less ground than the Beastie Boys Wikipedia page. (For a deeper dive, obsessive fans can enjoy Mike and Adam’s nearly 600-page Beastie Boys Book, published in 2018.) But there is something special about hearing this story in Mike and Adam’s own voices. One cannot really understand or experience the magic of the Beastie Boys without seeing them on stage with mics in their hands.
Beastie Boys Story is now streaming on Apple TV+.