All rock stars must eventually grow up, and the larger they lived during their rebellious heyday, the more dramatic the inevitable change. This is just to say that a greater-than-usual distance separates the Beastie Boys – hellraising rap trio, scourge of parents’ concern groups, the very essence of cool during the 1980s and ’90s — from the middle-aged guys pacing around the Kings Theatre’s stage during the new documentary Beastie Boys Story.
Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz brought a live show to Brooklyn last spring, essentially a walkthrough of their recently published memoir in TED Talk form, complete with a background PowerPoint accompaniment. Spike Jonze now relays that performance to the rest of the world with a filmed version so straightforward that his name may be his most meaningful contribution to the project. There’s hardly any of the mischievous toying-with-the-form for which the Beasties were once known, a symptom of a more comprehensive maturation that’s estranged these adults from what made them legends as kids.
The grand arc of their presentation trends toward coming-of-age, tracking them as they evolve beyond each successive phase of their career. From the fighters of the right to party, they advanced into more sophisticated sampledelia with the help of producer Rick Rubin and manager Russell Simmons, and so on. The money material occurs early on, as the boys cavort around a New York without rules, absorbing the ratty yet seductive influence of punk culture.
Once the band has been assembled, however, it’s mostly information that anyone who loves the Beastie Boys already knows. The pre-notoriety behind-the-scenes elements – befriending, growing apart from, and reuniting with collaborator Kate Schellenbach, for instance – break fresh ground in a way that the constant contextualising of their fame does not.
The creaky recollections about all the “crazy shit” (a repeated catchphrase marked by a sound cue that malfunctions at first, in one of the show’s only attempts to play with the form) find purpose in honouring the memory of the group’s third member, Adam “MCA” Yauch.
Taken too soon by cancer in 2012, he seems here to be the brains of the outfit. As head musical boundary-pusher, he guided their sound into uncharted territory. As video director, under the alter ego of his Swiss uncle Nathanial Hörnblowér, he made them DIY icons. And as their political compass, organising the epochal Free Tibet concert, he made them an important part of world history. The affection and respect these men show for their de facto brother flatters their age in a way that reminiscing about the good ol’ days of troublemaking cannot.
There’s a paucity of that anarchic spirit in the organisational polish of this stroll down memory lane. All the partying-and-girls talk draws a stark contrast with the greying figures in t-shirts and slacks before us, even before they disavow their first album as something of a joke that got away from them. One supposes that that making peace with the passage of time must be a preferable outcome to attempted boyhood-clinging, and yet that doesn’t erase the sad sense of deterioration that attends all comeback concerts.
Though the stories about meeting Kurtis Blow and fiddling tape-loop machines amply amuse, they come from a safe remove that feels altogether un-Beastie. Nobody stays young forever, but when you’re in no small part defined by your youth, that’s a difficult part to let go of.