“The magic of the movies.” The old adage connotes escapement and fantasy. In today’s cinematic landscape the saying is truer than ever — Pandora literally leaps out at us from the screen, inviting audiences to share in James Cameron’s fictional world. Marvel Studios cranks out superhero flick after superhero flick, and we as viewers now expect such blockbusters and the technical savvy inherent in their creation.
I’ll admit it — I’m no different. I ooh’ed, aah’ed and all but drooled right there in the theater when Sam Worthington first inhabited his avatar, catapulting himself into a landscape so colorful and pristine it could only be, well, imaginary. Though we know this to be the case, it’s worth repeating, given the legions of fans committing the Na’vi language to memory.
The reason I’m stating the obvious — as if I recently learned humans are not in fact waging full-fledged wars with alien races — is because I have only just discovered this, in a sense. While I’m aware we cannot transfer our consciousness to giant blue bodies and swing from big, bright Pandora trees, I’ve only just learned of the merits of non-fiction in film. I’m talking about our world, the one that actually exists all around us.
For those who already consider themselves fans of the documentary genre, you’ve got one new member. And for those who scorn documentaries as a carnivore scorns broccoli, I ask you to open your minds and sacrifice glamour and CGI for stories of real people.
First, some background information: Documentaries were not always on my radar. I watched them, sure, but mainly out of obligation when my parents would request I see a movie with them. “Which one?” I would ask. “Oh, it’s a new documentary. It’s supposed to be really good,” they would say. And I would groan. What is a documentary but a series of interviews spliced together with black and white footage added in for historical documentation? I wasn’t having it. I watched them with family and out of necessity when professors assigned them for homework. But “mockumentaries” like “Parks and Recreation” and “The Office” were more suited to my taste: funny, half hour episodes of television documenting nothing.
The change occurred last summer. My best friend suggested a title I had never heard of: “Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest.” I knew about the hip-hop group, but since I’m not what one might call a “music guy,” I was hesitant. My friend persisted. I had nothing better to do, so I gave in. The rest, as they say, is history. I was amazed.
“Beats” presents the rise and premature demise of A Tribe Called Quest, one of the most important hip-hop groups of the ’90s, which influenced later rappers such as Common, Pharell, Kanye West and many, many more. Beginning with the group’s early days growing up in Queens, N.Y., the film tracks its progress as the four members — Q-Tip (Kamaal Ibn John Fareed), Phife Dawg (Malik Taylor), Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White — develop their signature blend of Q-Tip’s laid-back, smooth rhythms topped off with Phife’s fiery lyrics. This John Coltrane-meets-N.W.A. combination placed them on top of the hip-hop scene for a brief time.
But it was the way the stories were told that left me glad I’d set aside an hour and a half. A central plot point describes the behind-the-scenes tensions between Q-Tip and Phife, a key reason for the group’s breakup in 1998. This isn’t “Jersey Shore” or some melodramatic depiction of reality. The guys tell it like it is, and the truth of their lives resonated more powerfully with me than any special-effects-laden bonanza I’ve seen in a long time.
Director Michael Rapaport sits down with Tribe’s four original members and countless guest interviews to better understand the complexities behind the disintegration of a relationship reminiscent of McCartney and Lennon: two childhood friends who make music together and are eventually pulled apart by the thing they love most.
Yet the little moments make this film great. Phife cries when he learns his wife will donate her kidney to him (he’s diabetic). Q-Tip shares his joy in finding the perfect beat on the most obscure records he can get his hands on. The two friends dance together, freely and uninhibited, in the recording studio in preparation for their 2010 reunion tour.
At the film’s end, Q-Tip says “I think the reason why A Tribe Called Quest is still relevant today after all this time is because it was truth, it was honesty.” If only I could say these words to myself five months ago, the guy who shrugged his shoulders at the thought of watching talking heads discuss boring real issues instead of action-packed, phantasmagorical sci-fi fare. As I should have remembered, a good story, told right, will always captivate. If there’s honesty, then people will listen. Sometimes a 3-D epic is the way to get there. And sometimes, all you need are memories, recounted to a camera, to remind us of the power of movies. That’s where the magic lies.