- - Thursday, July 14, 2011

For a band documentary, there is precious little music in “Beats Rhymes and Life,” the film about pioneering hip-hop act A Tribe Called Quest. Directed by actor and avowed ATCQ fan Michael Rapaport, the film shuttles between a history of the band, appreciation of its music and an exploration of the tensions between co-founders and childhood friends Q-Tip (born Jonathan Davis) and Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor) as they navigate the group’s reunion tour.

The most interesting parts of “Beats Rhymes & Life” focus on the founding of the band, its early history and impact. Q-Tip and Phife grew up together in Queens, N.Y., in the 1980s, and came of age as the nearby hip-hop act Run-D.M.C. were breaking as a nationwide sensation. The group they founded, along with DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White (who left the band), broke new ground in hip-hop, unifying the genre with jazz and soul through the use of samples and innovative beats.

More than that, the rappers pioneered a brand of hip-hop that contrasted starkly with the gangster style that was gaining popularity on the West Coast in the early 1990s. Along with De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Queen Latifah, Busta Rhymes and others, ATCQ propounded a gentle, more humanistic emceeing style, with less braggadocio and more romantic lyrical content. Interviews with Q-Tip and Phife about how their sound came together - especially recollections of an unexpected explosion of creativity at Manhattan’s Murry Bergtraum High School - are compelling.

But Mr. Rapaport errs in trying too hard to impose a narrative on his subjects. It’s well known that ATCQ was not a Lennon-McCartney-style partnership. Q-Tip is regarded, rightly, as the musical pioneer. As a lyricist and producer, Q-Tip set the tone for hip-hop in the early 1990s, and helped situate the genre in the continuum of black music. Phife has a more accessible stage presence, with his distinctive high voice and unforgettable rhyming style, but he just doesn’t have Q-Tip’s musical chops. Still, Mr. Rapaport tries to play up creative tensions between Q-Tip and Phife, accentuating the conflict between the two as they share the stage on a reunion tour.

The film also makes it seem as if the pair’s friendship is in a shambles during a crucial moment in Phife’s life, as he confronts worsening diabetes and requires a kidney transplant. Much of this, however, is just Phife venting for the camera.

It’s clear that Phife had more time to spare for Mr. Rapaport’s cameras than did Q-Tip, who is a fleeting presence. Probably the single most satisfying scene is a casual trip record-shopping with Q-Tip. In some ways, a 90-minute excursion with Q-Tip through some moldering LP library would’ve been a more fitting tribute to the band’s legacy than the choppy morass of “Beats Rhymes & Life.”

Quibbles aside, fans of ATCQ won’t want to miss “Beats Rhymes & Life.” But they might have preferred a different movie: one with archival concert footage with at least a few songs that play all the way through, instead of the snippets we get here.

★★½

TITLE: “Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest”

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Rapaport

RATING: R, for language

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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