When you get frustrated that Hollywood only seems to be recycling the past, perhaps you can take some comfort in knowing that it's not just a phenomenon in the film industry. The music business is experiencing the same thing, with several of the industry's biggest touring bands having been around since at least the '80s. Then you think about all the '90s groups that have gotten back together recently: Jane's Addiction, Blink-182, Limp Bizkit, Stone Temple Pilots, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains. For a certain percentage of rock fans, the year's biggest album is the anniversary re-release of a record that came out 20 years ago. (And if it's not that one, it may be this other 20-year-old reissue.) For better or worse, nostalgia is everywhere, but it's rarely been treated as poignantly as in actor Michael Rapaport's documentary "Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest."
The film is built around the 2008 reunion of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most respected New York City hip-hop groups of the late '80s and early '90s, and who were part of the Native Tongues, a collection of like-minded rap bands (including De La Soul) that favored intelligent, thoughtful musicianship that was more socially conscious than that of their peers. By the time of "Beats Rhymes & Life," Tribe had long since broken up -- their last album, "The Love Movement," came out in 1998 -- so the documentary was an opportunity to chronicle the reunion of the pioneering group.
But like a few recent musical reunions, Tribe's return had its share of bumps. "Beats Rhymes & Life" documents some of that -- in particular a nasty, heated off-stage exchange in San Francisco -- and although Rapaport is a clear fan of the group, there's a refreshing lack of deification going on in the film. That's not to say that Rapaport doesn't assemble an impressive collection of musicians to speak fondly about Tribe -- everybody from Pharrell Williams to Questlove to Common sing their praises -- but these talking heads mostly seem to be a way for Rapaport to communicate his passion for the group. That way, the good feelings accumulated by the band members' memories of the group's early days and the making of their five studio albums can be a bittersweet counterpoint to their current feuding, particularly between MCs Q-Tip and Phife Dawg. Without really drawing too much attention to it, Rapaport milks a sad irony: Tribe started out wanting to be a smarter, more enlightened hip-hop group, but the same petty egos and personality clashes eventually did them in.
In the typical music documentary, we're treated to a pretty relentless campaign of why such-and-such artist or band is the most amazing creative talent Earth has ever known. Sure, maybe the artist is tortured or complicated, but there's usually no doubt that he or she is absolutely worth your time and money. There's a little more of a clear-eyed approach to "Beats Rhymes & Life." Some surface similarities exist to Metallica's "Some Kind of Monster," in which that band's dirty laundry was put on display for all to see, but Rapaport's movie lacks the gossipy intrigue. He's said that he made the film for one simple reason: He wanted to know if the band was ever going to make another album. No doubt a lot of fans are wondering the same thing, but the answer that emerges from "Beats Rhymes & Life" is not an encouraging one. We'll always have the memories, but these guys sorta seem like they want to move on. We may all have to as well.