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The Beastie Boys Keep It On and On

Spike Jonze’s “Beastie Boys Story” tracks the band’s evolution from sexist hoodlums to beloved Gen X heroes.

Bertrand Guay/AFP/Getty
Ad-Rock, Mike D, and MCA

In 1987, the Beastie Boys opened for Run DMC on tour. The headliners’ song “Walk This Way” with Aerosmith was a monster hit, and the Beastie Boys’ debut album Licensed to Ill had made them frat-house stars the year before. The night they played Miami, Aerosmith came onstage to co-perform “Walk This Way.” Unnoticed, the Beastie Boys’ MCA snuck onstage with bass in hand and just started playing along. He sidled up to Joe Perry and tried to do that back-to-back hair-metal thing. Perry inched away in horror; MCA chased him across the stage; and in the wings his bandmates Ad-Rock and Mike D looked on, helpless with laughter, as MCA nonconsensually jammed along.

This anecdote encapsulates all that’s sweet about the new movie Beastie Boys Story. Directed by the band’s longtime collaborator Spike Jonze, this “live documentary” is actually a stage show performed by the band’s two surviving members, Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz, at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre. Beastie Boys Story was supposed to be an immersive IMAX experience, but the coronavirus did its thing, and now the substitute premiere is tonight on Apple TV (the movie is billed as “an Apple Original”). 

The set is two hours of storytelling: funny, intimate, and mercilessly nostalgic for the days of fish-eye lenses, wearing a regular T-shirt over a long-sleeved T-shirt, and the far-off youth those artifacts now represent. Diamond and Horovitz stand onstage, holding microphones, and talk to each other and the audience about the 34 years of their band. That’s it. 

It’s still a shock at first to see just the two of them up there, missing their third. It’s been eight years since Adam “MCA” Yauch died of cancer and brought an end to the band that could not go on without him. As a twosome, they just look wrong—like Destiny’s Child without Beyoncé or the Golden Girls with no Blanche. But for all its modesty, Beastie Boys Story, which follows the release last year of the memoir Beastie Boys Book, is nevertheless part of a big retrospective, inviting a big reckoning.

If there’s one thing I know about the Beastie Boys, it’s that every middle-aged white dad secretly thinks he could have been one. Theirs is a fairytale of eternal youth, the Peter Pans of Gen X, and this movie is squarely aimed at the sentimentalists who’ll thrill to the full hour it takes Beastie Boys Story just to get to 1982. 

Mike, Adam, and Adam were three middle-class kids from New York City—two from Manhattan, one from Brooklyn Heights. Their band had a fourth member at first, Kate Schellenbach, and together the gang tore through the city’s music scene. First they fell for hardcore, then for rap, then for the idea of both at once (Bad Brains helped). Their band was named for “Boys Entering Anarchistic States Towards Internal Excellence,” which, as Ad-Rock points out, does not make sense, as their name has the word “Boys” already in it. Some adorable archival footage projected on a screen shows the boys and Kate attempting to rap onstage while reading from lyric sheets, looking like the dorkiest white teenagers of all time.

Success and then embarrassment came in rapid succession. Record store owner Dave Parsons put their absurd prank phone call track Cooky Puss out on 12-inch. The gang met the young Def Jam founders, Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons, both evil geniuses on the brink of reinventing the music industry, who advised them to kick Kate out of the band. In 1986 they released “Hold It Now, Hit It,” propelled by a homemade “hot go-go-swing-type beat,” as Mike D describes it, layered over an 808 loop. The Beastie Boys’ sound was born. 

Their beats were strong, and while their early rhymes at times flashed with genius (“Rock ’n roll rhythms are raunchy and raucous / We’re from Manhattan, you’re from Secaucus”), they often did not. Whatever they sounded like, the Beastie Boys of the mid-’80s acted like boorish assholes. According to Diamond and Horovitz, all their early idiotic antics—shitty lyrics, spitting beer all over the stage, wearing Volkswagen hood ornaments on chains—were done on instruction from Rubin and Simmons, who were squeezing gold out of the band’s image as white hooligans. They even attracted the ire of the British tabloid press, like the Sex Pistols before them. 

The middle section of the film is a tour of apologies. They’re sorry to all the women they insulted; sorry to Kate Schellenbach (Horovitz says: “When Beastie Boys began, the majority of our friends were girls, and it’s really embarrassing that we let them down”); sorry to all the little girls they called motherfuckers when they supported Madonna on tour.

They skip over a couple of things, like the original title for Licensed to Ill, which was Don’t Be a Faggot. (In the book, Horovitz says the latter was Rubin’s idea but apologizes anyway.) Although they don’t talk explicitly about race in the show, Diamond and Horovitz radiate shame over being 19-year-old sexist assholes whose antics insulted a flourishing black genre. Mike D wore butt pads in the video for “Hey Ladies,” for God’s sake—they were not not offensive. 

I come not to cancel the Beastie Boys but to contextualize this stage in their career. As the entire message of Beastie Boys Story works to convey, these three were real idiots in their youth, and then for some reason they changed.

When the band grew ashamed of their 1980s posturing, it was Adam Yauch’s musicality and sheer enthusiasm that helped them evolve, Mike D says. The band holed up in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills, where they “discovered” (read: kicked in the door of) a closet full of their landlord’s 1970s stage outfits, including furs and platform boots, triggering the band’s interest in costumes and disguises. After the death of an old friend reunited them with old friends in New York City, the band was galvanized into finishing their record, and Paul’s Boutique was born in 1989.

It was a creative breakthrough but a flop commercially. They did not quit. After months of jamming (Mike on drums, Ad-Rock on guitar, MCA on bass), the result was a completely different band. They were no longer limited to sampling but could sing and—wonder of wonders—play music themselves. Underneath all that offensive cavorting, MCA had secretly been a profoundly talented musician all along. Inspired by each other and led creatively by Yauch, the Beastie Boys produced three of the defining albums of the 1990s: Check Your Head (1992), Ill Communication (1994), and Hello Nasty (1998). 

If you’re reading this, you probably know the rest. Jonze shot the clip for “Sabotage,” one of the greatest music videos of all time. The band started a studio and a record label and signed their old friend Kate’s band, Luscious Jackson. MCA traveled to Tibet, became a Buddhist, then organized the biggest charity concert since Live Aid, the Tibetan Freedom Concert. An unlikely second act was blossoming into a full creative saga.

The show ends abruptly, to match the life of Adam Yauch, who died aged 47 from cancer. Having reached this inevitable moment in the story, Ad-Rock sits down on the edge of the stage under a spotlight. They didn’t know it would be their last concert, he says: They had played Bonnaroo in Tennessee and shot a video in the streets with Nas. It was a beautiful day. Ad-Rock’s voice breaks, and he takes a moment. “Now is such a great distance from then.” 

Understanding the Beastie Boys as essential artists of American culture in the late twentieth century is tricky, because they’re less a single phenomenon than a Venn diagram of various forces that emerged in New York City in the 1970s: rap, hardcore, postmodernism, nightlife accessible to teenagers. The Beastie Boys grew up in old-school hip-hop as much as any other rap artist who broke out in the subsequent decade.

The Beastie Boys are a partly imitative act, and that’s what feels both so genius and so white about them—a combination of total confidence and ironic distance. There was always a gap between what they were doing and what they meant. Even back when they were fighting for their right to party, they were toeing the line between being drunk asshole party boys and cleverly satirizing drunk asshole party boys. It’s what makes them funny and charming and compulsive. Like The Talking Heads or Devo, the Beastie Boys bring that art-school vibe of holding the world at bemused arm’s length, that trick of reflecting the world back to you from an oblique point of view. But rap like that can never be truly earnest, or uncomplicatedly heartfelt, because it’s too self-conscious.

In her essay about Spuds McKenzie, Jazmine Hughes wrote in The New York Times Magazine last year that, though she’s never coveted whiteness, she has envied the “confident, entitled recklessness it could provide.” There’s a kind of blithe audacity that young white men exhibit that is intoxicating to consume as an audience, and the early Beastie Boys embodied it to a tee. 

Let’s go back to the Beastie Boys in 1987, touring with their heroes and de facto rap coaches, Run DMC.  The Beastie Boys would soon break away to sign with Capitol, a multirecord deal that allowed them to weather the commercial disaster of Paul’s Boutique and continue experimenting, eventually leading them to create the music that we all love so much. While there were a few lucrative deals for black rappers in the early years (Kurtis Blow signed with Mercury in 1979, and Afrika Bambaataa also signed with Capitol), Licensed to Ill was the first rap album ever to hit number one. Despite being white outliers, the Beastie Boys’ path toward innovation was greased from the start. 

At the same time, the major labels’ deafness to rap inadvertently made space for labels like Delicious Vinyl, Cold Chillin’, Def Jam, then later Bad Boy and Death Row. You can’t rewrite history without losing something. It is what it is, and we got the music that we got. 

It’s moving to watch Horovitz and Diamond process all of that onstage, if only implicitly, and it’s also moving to remember the time MCA rapped on “Sure Shot,” “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through.” There’s real politics on “It Takes Time to Build” from Ill Communication: “It’s easier to break it than build it correct / We’ve got a president we didn’t elect.” On “Right Right Now Now,” they even rapped about racism in the issuing of bank loans. There is so much in the Beastie Boys’ later music to show that they worked on their own characters as much as they obsessed over the music. Beastie Boys Story is a tribute to that transformation, a movie about American masculinity and the delicate art of repenting in public.