Director Michael Rapaport, right with Malik 'Phife' Taylor,… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Reporting from Park City, Utah — — Long established as an independent movie star and television actor with a body of work stretching back nearly two decades, Michael Rapaport ("Deep Blue Sea," "True Romance," Fox TV's "Prison Break") decided to make the leap into directing a feature documentary for two reasons.
One was love for his subject matter: A Tribe Called Quest, the seminal late '80s/early '90s New York rap quartet that helped shape the sound and define the parameters of modern hip-hop. The other was a question: Will Tribe — which broke up in 1998 but has reunited several times to tour and perform international shows — ever record new music again?
The fruit of Rapaport's labor, "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest" premiered to a standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival last Saturday. And from its opening sequence, it seemed the director had an answer for his other motivation.
"Is this your last show?" Rapaport asks Q-Tip, Tribe's lead rapper and driving musical force, backstage after a performance featured in the documentary. "That's it man," Q-Tip replies. "I've been doing this 20 years, man. It's a wrap, brother."
The joyful and often hilarious 95-minute film traces the career arc of the group –- comprised of bandmates Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Jarobi and Ali Shaheed Muhammad — from its humble Queens, N.Y., origins to the pinnacle of rap stardom. But set to the jazzy boom-bip of the group's vintage tracks, "Beats" also tackles more provocative subject matter. It vividly illustrates the internal power struggles, egocentrism and battles of will that ultimately resulted in Tribe's demise.
And, that warts-and-all treatment has compelled Q-Tip (government name: Jonathan Davis) to publicly disavow "Beats, Rhymes & Life" on Twitter even while Rapaport maintains that Q-Tip strong-armed him into re-cutting the movie and had himself installed as a producer on the project.
"I am not in support of the a tribe called quest documentary," the rapper, 40, tweeted last month. (Q-Tip declined to comment for this story.)
Rapaport, meanwhile, is proud of the end result and gratified to debut it at Sundance — where he launched his career 19 years ago, appearing in the indie romance "Zebrahead." But seated in Park City just before the movie's first screening, the actor-director appeared clearly anguished by Q-Tip's lack of support.
"The process of making this film has been such a whirlwind," Rapaport said over a tiny beet salad at the posh Main Street restaurant-lounge Silver. "This trumps the level of difficulty of anything I've done professionally. Personally, the only thing that supersedes this is my divorce. And my divorce was devastating."
"Beats" arrives as a first of its kind — a biopic focused around a rap group that provides the kind of up-close-and-personal, contextualizing treatment that countless rockumentaries have given to the likes of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles. As well, the film serves as a rollicking primer on the so-called golden era of hip-hop, placing Tribe within a continuum of positive MC-ing and Afro-centric identity politics carried forward by such names as De La Soul and the Jungle Brothers.
Exhaustive interviews with a constellation of rap stars –- Pete Rock, the Beastie Boys, DJ Red Alert, Large Professor, Common and Monie Love among them — cement the idea of A Tribe Called Quest as musical pioneers whose influence dominates today's hip-hop scene.
"Me, Kanye [West], we wouldn't be here if not for Tribe albums," multiplatinum-selling hit-maker Pharrell Williams says in the film.
A lifelong hip-hop head and longtime admirer of ATCQ, Rapaport explained he was inspired to take on the project after seeing the band regroup to perform in 2006. 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.
The director persuaded the group members to let him film them as they headlined the successful traveling hip-hop festival Rock the Bells in 2008 — despite some initial misgivings.
"When Mike called, I said, 'Yo, it sounds cool.' But I was thinking 'Behind the Music'-ish," said Dawg after a screening of the film in Park City. "I love those shows. I don't mind being in Lil Wayne's or Pink's business. But for me to put Tribe's business out there? I was like, 'Mike, how real can I keep it? This is kind of messy right now. I don't know if it should be done.'"