The 1986 Beastie Boys’ debut “Licensed to Ill” resonates across multiple generations; for some, those early days represent pop-culture nostalgia. For the two surviving members of the group, it’s a lot more complicated. In the new Apple TV+ documentary “Beastie Boys Story,” Spike Jonze adapts the live show he directed last year into a two-hour storytelling session, as Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Mike “Mike D” Diamond recall their early rise from raucous punk rockers to rap stars (Adam “MCA” Yauch died of cancer in 2012). That project coincides with a newly published book, “Beastie Boys,” collecting Jonze’s photography of the band from its early days along with memories of their crazed first decade.
Beyond the performative energy of Horovitz and Diamond, “Beastie Boys Story” contains a confluence of creative forces. It’s the latest collaboration between the Beastie Boys and Jonze, whose relationship goes back to the group’s earliest days, including their famed “Sabotage” music video. It also features an executive producer credit for Jonah Hill, the actor-turned-filmmaker and avowed Beastie Boys fan, who helped develop the show. When Hill, Jonze, and Diamond all hopped on a Zoom call to discuss the collaboration, the rambling conversation mirrored the documentary’s prankish energy and sincere curiosity about the creative process.
After an awkward start — and a last-minute cancellation by Horovitz — Jonze, Diamond, and Hill launched into a lively conversation about their various histories, their relationship to success and failure, and what they’ve been watching in quarantine. Watch a clip from the conversation above.
Spike, you met the Beastie Boys for a photo shoot when you were working for Dirt magazine. What was your impression of the group at that point?
SPIKE JONZE: When I first met them, they had just put out their second record, “Paul’s Boutique.” I loved both of them, and the band, because they felt like people I would know and want to hang out with. They would be our very cool friends. I just related to them. We grew up listening to the same music. Yauch came from skateboarding, so we had the same references. I was nervous to meet them, but once I got to know them, it became nature.
MIKE DIAMOND: Spike, your preconception was that we would be these cooler friends you’d meet, but what was the reality?
SJ: You guys were really cool! You were in a band I loved, you were funny, you just had these insane layers of inside jokes that just took so long to peel back. You were decent fellows.
MD: Here are my first impressions of Spike from the Dirt photo shoot. We’re all of probably 20 years old and Spike was maybe 19. Instantly, in that one shoot, he won us over because he was pretty unflappable. He was unflappable. We were like, “Why are we sitting on a couch in the middle of La Cienega Boulevard?” That’s literally what Spike had us do. He kept having us doing crazy stuff. Every time we called him out on it, instead of getting defensive, or getting mad, this van would magically come by and pick us up to take us to the next ridiculous thing. After that first shoot, we just became friends. Spike, when you did the “100%” video, we started hanging out, right?
SJ: Mike’s wife at the time, the director Tamra Davis — her and Kim Gordon asked me to do this Sonic Youth video for “100%.” I was around Mike’s house all the time.
MD: Spike really was like someone we could’ve known in New York. He was just another creative person with so much crossover in terms of influences.
“Beastie Boys Story”
Jonah, when did you first become a Beastie Boys fans?
JH: It was 1971. It was your feature verse on Led Zeppelin.
MD: I think you’re getting that confused with our feature on Blue Oyster.
JH: Honestly, the first record I got from my older brother as a gift was “Licensed to Ill.” That was the first tape I had. I listened to it over and over again. I was young. I’m still young. They’re old. Good for me.
MD: Bad for us.
JH: They were always a big deal to me and emotionally connected to the music I loved when I grew up. “Paul’s Boutique” was a little more sophisticated than I was when I grew up so I only appreciated it later. “Check Your Head” was the record that changed everything for me musically — the cover, the extra-large outfits, the skate stuff, and the music itself. It was all one cultural moment for me.
SJ: Let’s hear the Professor Booty intro, right now!
JH: “Professor, what’s another word for private treasure?”
MD: That’s right up there with your Pusha T imitation.
JH: Anyhoo, that’s the best record ever. Adam and Mike were definitely like Jewish superheroes. That was a big deal to a kid who was Jewish. It’s like what Bob Dylan was for my dad.
MD: I think it was more like Elliot Gould for your generation.
JH: Wasn’t he part of the original lineup?
Mike, one of the more revealing moments in the documentary is when Adam recites the lyrics to “Girls” in monotone. You both look a bit sheepish about the sophomoric nature of those lyrics and the underlying sexism of the time. When did you all first start feeling more comfortable addressing that in public?
MD: Adam and I realized we were pretty grateful. Now we actually get to comment on stuff we did, good and bad. And there’s plenty of bad. With pretty much anyone growing up, there’s things you’re proud of, and things you’re less proud of. It wasn’t until Adam read the lyrics for “Girls” that it hit me — when you have this moment in the room in front of the audience, it carries the weight of what it is.
Jonah, what was your creative involvement in the project?
JH: Obviously, Spike had known them for so long and I’d been a fan. I read the book like twice in a row before that. It was cool to ask the guys to elaborate on things we found interesting that maybe they’d mention briefly in the book. I felt like I’d known Mike and Adam a long time, but would never ask them these questions so brazenly.
SJ: I’d gotten pieces of stories. A lot of it was getting them to tell the whole stories. I really wanted to tell the full subjective experience that they had, from when they were 14 starting a band through “Sabotage” and “Ill Communication.” There was so much stuff I wanted to know about. As we went through it, we’d realized we had chapters. The Beastie Boys have so many jokes that are only funny to them.
All of you have faced the challenges of second efforts. Mike, in the show, you talk about what it was like to experience the commercial failure of “Paul’s Boutique” after the success of “Licensed to Ill.” Spike, you had all this attention thrust on you after “Being John Malkovich.” And Jonah, you’ve directed one movie, “Mid90s,” so now you face the danger of the sophomore slump. How do you all approach this particular challenge?
JH: Both of these gentlemen have taught me a lot and I’ve studied their careers, which is weird because I know them. What I learned from “Paul’s Boutique” is that they just did it. That’s something I give them major props for. They just did their second record. That’s pretty fucking insane. They could’ve spent five, six, seven years just being scared. A lot of bands do that. Spike, I’d be interested in hearing about your journey from your first movie, but it seems like from an outside perspective, your collaborations just kept going. We tried to write a narrative together right after my first movie, then I wrote another movie. I think I was just scared to go do it. Now it’s going to end up being my second movie, something I just did without thinking about it, just trusting that it felt right. These guys are OGs. They’ve made so many films and records I admire. I asked them so many questions. You realize you just know when it feels like the right thing.
What is this movie that you and Spike wrote together?
SJ: It was a memoir of a sailor in 1880 who was the first person to ever sail around the southern tip of Panama. He built a castle in Patagonia made out of duck hooves.
JH: I thought it was a Jeff Bezos biopic about the teenage years.
SJ: I thought that was the subtext.
OK, Spike, the follow-up question.
SJ: I never wanted to do something I’d already done before. After “Sabotage” came out, I was like 24 or 25, and agents started just off that video. People wanted to make a movie out of “Sabotage.” It just seemed so ridiculous. We already did that. Why would we do it again in movie form? There have been times after my first couple of movies where I’d be nervous, making “Where the Wild Things Are,” or making “Her.” When I sat down to write “Her,” I didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing. I just knew it was something I was thinking about all the time. I know that if I’m thinking about it all the time, I have to do it. When I wrote it, I knew if I didn’t like it I wouldn’t make it. However, if you’re scared of doing something, it’s probably a good thing. It’s that buzz of going into new territory.
“Her” was seven years ago. Since then, you’ve done a lot of documentaries on live shows. When are you going to make another narrative feature?
SJ: I got into a few years of live stuff. It’s been really fun. Jonah wrote a play, I wrote this dance theater piece, I created Frank Ocean’s festival tour, this thing with Mike, Adam, and Jonah. I did Aziz Ansari’s live show last year. Doing live stuff is really fun. At 8 o’clock, you go out onstage, and then you’re done. But I’m writing all the time.
What are you all doing with your free time indoors?
SJ: I went back and started “Sopranos” all over again. I hadn’t seen it since I first watched it all the way through. Oh my god. So many good characters. It’s like an 80-hour epic. Tony Sopranos is such an amazing character. And those scenes of Dr. Melfi.
JH: You inspired us, we’re just about to start “Sopranos” from episode 1. My fiancé and I started “Jersey Shore” from episode 1, which is honestly truly remarkable in a lot of ways. I love docs, so I think some reality TV can fall into the same lineage. As silly as “Jersey Shore” is, all the bad dumb stuff, it’s almost like “Jackass” — the people are genuinely funny. It’s not as brilliant as “Jackass,” but what makes that show work is that the friends are genuinely hysterical. I also just watched “Terms of Endearment” and “As Good as It Gets.” I’m on a James Brooks kick. Also, I’ve been listening to this great band Los Retros.
MD: I’m a Bill Hader fan, so I finished up Season 2 of “Barry,” and then I was a little lost, so I tried watching serious things and documentaries. My mental space in that way is already taken up. I realized along with my teenage sons, I had to go back to my inner teenager and realized I had to go back to comedies because that’s what we need now. We started out with “Pineapple Express,” which still holds up. The fight scene in “Pineapple Express” is still maybe one of the best fight scenes ever.
SJ: Mike, you’ve been talking about “Pineapple Express” a lot this month.
MD: And then we went to “Tropic Thunder.” Every three minutes, something happens where you’re like, “That could never be in a movie in 2020.”
It often seems like Ben Stiller doesn’t get enough credit as a filmmaker.
MD: He really doesn’t. “Cable Guy” is incredible.
SJ: Also, his “Escape From Dannemora” is incredible.
JH: I feel like the saying, “Stiller doesn’t get enough props as a filmmaker,” I’ve heard that enough to think that there’s something behind it. He’s made so many bangers. I think there’s something interesting in that statement in itself. He’s made like five of my favorite movies. Then I heard this from film people, that he doesn’t get enough props as a filmmaker, but maybe it’s a backhanded compliment, because who says he doesn’t get enough props as a filmmaker? Do you think it’s because, if he just had that roster of five films we all love — if his IMDb was just, “Reality Bites,” “Tropic Thunder,” “Zoolander,” “Cable Guy,” and “Dannemora,” you’d be like, “This guy is one of the best guys around.” You think it’s because he’s also so famous as an actor that it strips back some of his props as a filmmaker?
Jonah, this all feels very meta, since like Stiller, you’re a comedy guy now making your way into directing movies.
JH: I couldn’t know yet because I haven’t made enough films. But of course, I’m interested in that question. It’s so fascinating. There’s a selfish interest in that, but I’m also thinking about it as a fan of him as a director.
MD: Here’s an interesting footnote: Adam and I first met Ben Stiller after “Paul’s Boutique” came out, and after “Cable Guy” came out. We had this shared misery of putting all this time into a project that we respectively completely believed in. We didn’t even question it. To make stuff for this company and they’re like, “This thing is great,” and then it completely tanks commercially. But then some people say they love it. It’s a weird conflict.
Mike, one of the albums that really stands out in the current moment is “To the Five Boroughs,” and especially the track “An Open Letter to New York,” which was a response to 9/11. Here in New York, people keep comparing the ongoing situation to 9/11. How do you feel about the resonance of that moment now?
MD: Thank you for mentioning that because I didn’t think of that song in this context at all. Obviously, New York is unfortunately the epicenter, the face of the coronavirus for the United States. I was living in downtown New York when 9/11 happened. There are these weird similarities — this event that happens, totally out of your control, that changes the complexity of the world. A couple days after, I rode my bike up to my mom’s apartment on the Upper West Side. It was a totally different universe. The power worked, the National Guard wasn’t on every corner. It was quieter, regular New York life while downtown was a fucking militarized war zone. I’m conflicted in that I’ve defected, I live in sunny California and have outdoor space. But for all my friends and family in New York, I can’t imagine what that reality is. We had a hard time writing “To the Five Boroughs” because we were sitting in our studio, at Oscilloscope, on Canal Street. We were so close to it. Writing serious, reflective, somewhat political things isn’t our bread and butter. It was hard.
Spike and Jonah, how are you feeling about the moment we’re all living through right now?
SJ: I’ve been thinking about it lately as this global shift that’s happening in slow motion, so it’s very hard to know what’s happening and what the shift actually is. I’m really just trying to surrender to it, go day by day, and not letting my imagination run wild with where this lands.
JH: I feel like we all go in waves. Everyone can acknowledge that. Sometimes, you’re like, “Man, this is so horrible. How can I help?” Or you’re wrapped up in the news and can’t stop thinking about it. Or you’re trying to work and all you want to do is not think about it. I feel so many different feelings and I don’t judge myself for those that feelings are happening. I think that may affect my writing in subconscious ways I can’t articulate.