Part of the appeal of the Beastie Boys has always involved the perception of a punchline that got serious: How did a trio of middle-class Jewish boys from New York infiltrate the ‘90s hip hop scene and become one of its most prominent groups? The boisterous group of Ad-Rock, MCA, and Mike D first answered that skepticism with the raucous middle finger of “License to Ill,” started to complicate their sound with “Paul’s Boutique,” and by the end of the decade it was no joke: The Beastie Boys were genuine artists who transcended the limits of any specific musical genre and invented one of their own.
“Beastie Boys Story” provides a charming and poignant explanation for how they pulled it off. Perennial Beastie Boys collaborator Spike Jonze directed the live show staged across several nights at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater last year, and takes on the reins in this straightforward recorded version culled from multiple performances.
The no-frills approach finds surviving Beastie Boys members Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz delivering a chapter-based account of their unusual rise from dopey aspiring punk rockers through Hollywood-fueled meltdowns, and how various missteps helped them arrive at new creative inspiration. Much of the movie operates as a playful nostalgia trip, and at two hours that’s asking a lot, but “Beastie Boys Story” is also imbued with a moving sense of purpose: The story doubles as a tribute to beloved multi-hyphenate Adam “MCA” Yauch, whose 2012 death from cancer catalyzed the dissolution of the group.
It’s also a welcome excuse to revisit a fascinating musical odyssey, and why that process of continuity defined the Beastie Boys’ artistry more than the puerile antics of their first album. Diamond and Horovitz pace across the stage against the backdrop of various stills and clips, smirking and shrugging their way through a self-effacing overview, but the music tells a different story. As they recount the experiences behind singles ranging from “Cooky Puss” to “Sabotage,” the pair emphasize the eclectic musical experimentation behind it all. Here, they’re exploiting a traditional drums-and-bass arrangement; there, the magic of a drum machine, all the while tossing out lyrics and samples until the constant layering arrived at their own unique sound. As Horovitz puts it, “fucking around became our creative process.”
Since Diamond and Horovitz don’t perform any music themselves during the show, newcomers to the allure of the Beastie Boys sound may find themselves wondering why the crowds shriek at every cue for another snippet. But newcomers to the allure of the Beastie Boys: Who are you people?
The most enjoyable aspect of “Beastie Boys Story” is that Diamond and Horovitz know their story registers with such instant familiarity, and while they don’t reveal a lot of new information, they personalize the drama to an extent that gives it fresh currency. From middle-school punk rockers who came to the attention of Def Jam with “License to Ill” to the newly autonomous experimenters of “Paul’s Boutique” and the sophisticated artists of “Hello Nasty” — for this writer and many others, their finest hour — every aspect of the Beastie Boys’ compositional story sounds like it’s building on the previous installment. Diamond and Horovitz’s detailed explanations confirm just how much that was the truth.
As a director, Jonze doesn’t do much beyond conveying what it must have been like to sit in the room with these two. Similar to his work on the Aziz Ansari Netflix special from last year, the filmmaker appears to have checked his auteur credentials at the door, though the occasional nifty camera angle provides a reminder that he knows what he’s doing. If anything, Jonze might have benefited from a little more help chipping away at the material, as a seemingly endless credits sequence with outtakes from various shows suggests nobody could figure out when to call it a day. Fair enough: With this much good stuff, “Beastie Boys Story” feels overlong but not overextended.
The show has an unpolished DIY quality that suggests Diamond and Horovitz maintain the group’s appealing chemistry even with one crucial member out of the picture. As they drop playful insults and compliments alike, much of the rehearsed material benefits from their genuine bond. When Jonze accidentally misses one of Horovitz’s cues (“I’m sorry, I fucked up the teleprompter,” the director sighs offscreen), it’s almost like a purposeful attempt to keep the musician on his toes. Levity keeps the proceedings moving along, as the Beasties welcome every opportunity to stop taking themselves too seriously. The highlight in that respect arrives when Diamond mocks Horovitz for his fleeting career in front of the camera (playing and replaying his appearance in the 1989 dud “Lost Angels”), making it clear that the duo finds their detour into Hollywood stardom as ridiculous as anyone else.
Through stumbles like those, however, the Beastie Boys wised up. “Beastie Boys Story” touches on the frustrations with Def Jam that lead them to find autonomy with new labels, and their eagerness to push themselves creatively rather than waiting for superproducers like Rick Rubin to do it all for them. It’s here that the performers give much credit to Yauch, who isn’t there to blush, for innovating with drum machines and music video direction (under the hilarious Swedish persona of Nathaniel Hornblower, a prank they continue to carry on his behalf). Looking back on nearly 30 years of maturing in public, they offer some sobering regrets, from booting out early drummer Kate Schellenbach for not jiving with their image (“It’s really shitty the way it went down”) to the sophomoric sexism of the lyrics to “Girls,” which Horovitz recites onstage in amusing monotone and a sheepish grin.
However, nothing in “Beastie Boys Story” registers as more authentic than when Diamond sits at the foot of the stage for a teary-eyed anecdote about the group’s last show. Yauch’s death provided a permanent blockade to the future of the Beastie Boys, and watching this spry, energetic documentary makes it clear that their journey met an abrupt end. Yet “Beastie Boys Story” resurrects the group’s appeal on their own terms, playing off fandom that crosses generations and genres while putting it in context. The final impression is that the Beastie Boys enjoyed making music as much as the millions of people on the receiving end, and yes, they miss it as much as you do.
“Beastie Boys Story” premieres globally on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 24.