There’s a certain time in a lot of our lives when we fantasize about being in bands, and those fantasies usually go something like this. You and a small group of friends love nothing more than hanging out and being creative, and somewhere along the line you pick up instruments. Thanks to a combination of talent, ambition, and hard work, the fruit of your labors starts to resonate with people outside of your immediate social circle. As music moves from your passion to your profession, the love that drew you all to it never diminishes, nor does the affection for one another that pulled you together in the first place. Rather than “growing up” and getting “real jobs,” you and your friends find lasting fortune and fame by doing that same thing you were up to at the beginning: hanging out and being creative.
Of course, as anyone who’s ever actually been in a band can tell you, it never really works that way. Bands almost never get big, and among the tiny fraction that do, that initial romance of creative fellowship quickly runs into the reality of individual egos, divergent ambitions, and various financial entanglements. Take the most famous example, the Beatles, which, after all, is pretty much where this fantasy stems from. “Why did the Beatles break up?” is a question that’s likely been asked by billions of people since April of 1970, and most explanations tend to ignore the most obvious answer: The Beatles broke up because they were a band, and breaking up is what bands do.
There are many reasons that the Beastie Boys meant so much to so many people: They were cool, they were funny, and they were brilliantly creative. But one of the biggest was that they seemed to so joyously embody that particular fantasy, perhaps more than any act of their era. Here were three childhood friends who’d started a band, gotten huge, and through it all managed to maintain an unconditional love for music along with a self-evident and intensely inspiring love for one another. They were that band that you’d always wanted to be in, one of the many qualities that made the death of Adam Yauch (aka MCA) in 2012, at age 47, so devastating for so many people. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. Not for the Beastie Boys. It wasn’t ever supposed to end.
I found myself thinking about all of this while watching Beastie Boys Story, a new film directed by Spike Jonze that was originally supposed to open in IMAX on April 3 but will now debut exclusively on Apple TV+ on April 24. The format of Beastie Boys Story is fairly unusual. The film was shot at Kings Theatre in Brooklyn and is essentially a live, two-man show between the two surviving Beastie Boys, Michael Diamond (aka Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (aka the King Ad-Rock). (Other, thoroughly unexpected guests do show up, but not until very late in the film.) In typical Jonze fashion, the film is loose and anarchic yet deceptively well-controlled, its fourth wall always in varying states of permeability. The two men narrate their own careers, with a generous amount of archival footage of the band that goes back to its very beginnings. There are no talking heads weighing in on the band’s significance, no corny montages, and there is no Behind the Music–style canned drama. The result is a warm and intimate film, and one that I frequently found myself wishing I could experience in the IMAX format, which I can only imagine was intended to re-create the original live theatrical experience.
Beastie Boys Story doesn’t contain any bombshell revelations. Certainly anyone who’s read 2018’s Beastie Boys Book (and if you haven’t, for the love of God, go read Beastie Boys Book) won’t really find much here to change their basic idea of who and what the Beastie Boys were. But that’s not the point of a film like this, which is equal parts memorial, reflection, and celebration. There’s a ton of cool footage, particularly of the band’s earlier years. We see grainy video of the band performing at the Kitchen in New York, reading their rhymes off of torn notebook pages. There’s a clip of a local television show featuring Afrika Bambaataa, and a young Ad-Rock sneaks into the studio audience to request that Bam play “Cooky Puss,” the Beastie Boys’ first single. (Bam blesses the record as “tough.”) And make sure to stay for the massive grab bag of footage that unfolds during the film’s end credit sequence, which lasts longer than some sitcoms and is worth every second.
Jonze and his two subjects have made an honest and open film, firmly in character for a band that always seemed exceptionally comfortable in its own skin. Diamond and Horovitz speak with regret and humility about the band’s treatment of founding drummer Kate Schellenbach, who was unkindly jettisoned when the group transitioned from hardcore quartet to white-rap provocateurs. (Schellenbach went on to co-found the band Luscious Jackson, and she and her former co-Beasties have long since reconciled.) They speak unusually extensively about the mammoth success of Licensed to Ill, an album whose legacy the group spent much of its career aggressively attempting to distance itself from. They reflect on the commercial failure of their 1989 masterpiece Paul’s Boutique, and how Capitol’s bungling of the album’s promotion led the group to a fierce self-reliance that resulted in the one-two punch of Check Your Head and the multiplatinum Ill Communication. They look back on their long and immensely productive relationship with Swiss New Wave filmmaker Nathanial Hörnblowér, who had all the ideas for Star Wars.
Around three-quarters of the way through Beastie Boys Story, I began to feel a bit like I was ready for the movie to end. I’d enjoyed it immensely, but it had started to feel shaggy, like it had run out of places to go. I found myself wondering if maybe the two-man show format had been a mistake: After all, these guys are well known for being friends with some of the world’s most interesting people, and it might have been cool to hear from some of them, too.
It was right around this moment, though, that the film suddenly and beautifully changed shape, as Horovitz and Diamond fully turn their attention to the yawning absence at the center of all this, the late Yauch. A gorgeous and almost impossibly moving remembrance unfolds. At one point, Horovitz, choking back tears, has to turn things over to Diamond for a spell, and the two men basically help each other through the remainder of the film. It’s a raw and exquisitely emotional turn, a miraculously graceful tonal shift that somehow reconfigures everything you’ve just watched.
At one point late in the film, Diamond recounts a story about Horovitz being asked by an interviewer if “Song for the Man,” a track calling out street harassment from Hello Nasty, was just a bit hypocritical coming from the guys who did Licensed to Ill. I’d rather be a hypocrite, responds Horovitz, in Diamond’s paraphrase, than be the same person forever. It’s an anecdote I’d come across in various forms and places over the years, but this time it hit me with new force. A simple but too rare act of generosity is to afford others the capacity to change, and in some ways this feels like the moral at the heart of the Beastie Boys’ story (unitalicized), the gift they’d most want paid forward. That fantasy so many of us have harbored about bands is a fantasy of the young, and in many ways it’s a fantasy of eternal youth. The Beastie Boys weren’t that. They were the opposite, and that’s so much better.