Sundance 2011: 'Beats, Rhymes & Life' premiere turns emotional [Updated]
Saturday’s premiere for "Beats, Rhymes & Life"–- Michael Rapaport’s Sundance documentary about the seminal New York hip-hop quartet a Tribe Called Quest –- was thronged with music industry insiders and rap stars, not your usual constituency for a Park City, Utah event. Conspicuously, audience members were seen downing beer inside the Temple Theater (yes, it's part of a synagogue) on a wider scale than at any other screening this correspondent has witnessed in six festivals’ worth of coverage.
"Hip-hop in a temple –- nowhere else but Sundance," commented senior programmer David Courier in introducing the film.
But the event took a strikingly emotional turn during the question-and-answer session afterward that left attendees visibly moved and resulted in a standing ovation.
The joyful and often hilarious 95-minute film traces the career arc of a Tribe Called Quest –- that is, bandmates Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad -- from its humble Queens, N.Y. origins to the pinnacle of rap stardom. To the jazzy boom-bip of vintage ATCQ tracks (that have not been even slightly diminished by age), the movie also tackles more somber subject matter, vividly illustrating the internal power struggles, egocentrism and battles of will that ultimately resulted in Tribe’s demise in 1998 –- the depths of which even the group’s longtime listeners may have never known.
"Me, Kanye [West], we wouldn’t be here if not for Tribe albums,"multi-platinum selling hitmaker Pharrell Williams says in the movie.
After Rapaport's two-decade run as an actor -- he got his professional start at Sundance in 1992 with the film "Zebrahead" -- "Beats, Rhymes & Life" marks his debut effort as a director. A lifelong hip-hop head and longtime admirer of ATCQ, Rapaport explained after the screening that he had been inspired to take on the project after seeing the band regroup to perform in 2008.
As the story goes, Rapaport got stuck in a moment and couldn’t get out of it: Backstage at a show at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre, he saw Tribe in a light that the filmmaker likened to seeing "Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin hanging out in one of those old rock photos." As well, he found encouragement to direct from a certain A-list actor who was also backstage: Leonardo DiCaprio. "You should do it,"Rapaport recalled the "Titanic" star's telling him.
But the warts-and-all nature of the project has not sat well with all of the bandmates. After seeing an early version of the film, Q-Tip forced the director to make changes to the film by threatening to withdraw his support from the project (that process will be detailed in a Calendar section story later this week). Rapaport made alterations -- installing Q-Tip as a producer on the film in the process –- but the resulting film has done little to aid the uneasy peace that prevails among ATCQ members who have reunited several times since 1998 to perform tours and do international shows.
Although such rap stars as Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson from the Roots and Adam “MCA” Yauch of the Beastie Boys were in attendance at the premiere, three-quarters of the members of a Tribe Called Quest were notably absent.
After the screening, Rapaport introduced the only Tribe member to visit Utah for Sundance, Phife Dawg. The MC grew tearful while answering an audience member's question: What was your motivation for getting involved with this film?
"I wish the rest of them were here,"Phife said, after resting his head on the lectern. "They don’t understand. I’ve been listening to you guys’ responses throughout the movie. Q-Tip has no idea how many people love him. When he was up there cracking jokes, yo, I almost pissed my pants!"
He continued: “You guys were dying of laughter. He don’t see that.... He’s like, 'Yo, man, I don’t know, man. I don’t know.' I just wish they were all here to witness how much love you showed this movie.”
[Update: Q-Tip, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad issued a statement about the film on Saturday evening: "We hope that the film's perspective conveys our love for hip-hop culture. We could not attend Sundance, but we want to express our love and appreciation for the support that we have received in advance of the film's premiere tonight. We hope that it is well received."]
Phife –- who is shown battling a debilitating case of diabetes in the film, undergoing a kidney transplant with his wife as a donor -- grew philosophical about his group's lasting cultural influence and then turned somewhat hopeful for more Tribal unity in the event "Beats, Rhymes & Life"screens at the Tribecca Film Festival later this year.
"We’re 40 years of age. Well, I don’t look 40. But this is the time to reap the benefits and really enjoy,"said Phife.
"I wish they were here," he added: "Maybe they’ll make Tribeca."
The audience rose to their feet with thunderous applause.
-- Chris Lee
Phife Dawg, Q-Tip and Jarobi of a Tribe Called Quest in "Beats, Rhymes & Life." Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival.