Dir: Spike Jonze. Starring: Michael Diamond, Adam Horovitz, Spike Jonze. 119 mins.
The Beastie Boys have always walked on the knife-edge of self-parody. They might be the world’s biggest-selling rap outfit, but they’ve never tried to present themselves as anything other than three dorky white kids from New York City’s punk scene. In the era of “Fight For Your Right” and “No Sleep Till Brooklyn”, they wore their party bro reputations like clown costumes – at the end of their live shows, a giant hydraulic penis would pop out to greet the crowd. In Beastie Boys Story, we see how that translates nearly four decades down the line.
Advertised as a “live documentary”, it serves as a condensed version of Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Adrock” Horovitz’s two-man live show from 2019, co-written and directed by Hollywood’s loveable slacker, Spike Jonze. In fact, it’s actually part of a promotional stint for the Beastie Boys Book, published in 2018 – a collection of anecdotes, photographs, and paraphernalia that best tells the story of the band. It was also a way for Diamond and Horovitz to pay tribute to their bandmate Adam Yauch, known as MCA, who died from cancer in 2012. “When Adam died, we stopped being a band,” Horovitz notes early on in the show. All that’s happened since has been a form of documentation and preservation.
Yauch’s death clearly left behind a deep scar. Horovitz chokes up at one point, as he struggles to recount the band’s last gig together. But the pair do their best to honour a man who contained wondrous multitudes – he was passionately dedicated to the Tibetan independence movement, but claimed the Dalai Lama’s main draw was that he’s “a funny dude”. They also emphasise how much of a driving force he was for the group. Not only was he the first to bring them together, he remained a steady source of inspiration and motivation.
Elsewhere, Diamond and Horovitz like to keep things light. Both dressed in khaki pants, they stroll on to the stage and introduce themselves like they’re about to kick off an improv show in the basement of a jazz club. Beastie Boys Story has a modest charm to it, as Diamond and Horovitz chronicle their lives in front of a massive PowerPoint presentation, jam-packed with interview clips and personal photographs. There are short sketches and bits of off-script improv that flow so naturally, it’s easy to assume they’ve been staged. At one point, Diamond insists on looping a clip from Horovitz’s ill-fated cinematic debut in Lost Angels (1989), which sees him let out an orgasmic grunt after his car plunges into a swimming pool. As Diamond points out, it’s not the most natural of reactions.
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A more conventional set of minds would probably have just let Jonze direct his own Beastie Boys documentary. He is an Oscar winner, after all, and was behind the music video for “Sabotage”, their biggest hit. But the director might have gone too easy on his longtime friends – it’s more striking to see Diamond and Horovitz confront their own mistakes head-on. They’re upfront about how their initial party bro image warped their relationship with women, resulting in the brutal dismissal of drummer Kate Schellenbach and the chauvinist lyrics of 1987’s “Girls”.
It’s this honesty that makes Beastie Boys Story appealing even to rap novices, offering a rare opportunity for two artists to track their own creative, personal, and moral evolution. When confronted about his past, Horovitz offers some inspired advice: “I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person forever.”