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Despite off-screen drama, the Tribe Called Quest documentary is phenomenal

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So much petty drama has clouded the release of Michael Rapaport's A Tribe Called Quest documentary. One version of the backstory casts the first-time director as a doofus actor wannabe (arguably best known for his role as Phoebe's boyfriend in Friends) who persuades the seminal, but privately splintered, hip-hop crew to participate in a consummate career doc. After two and a half years of the corny B-lister shadowing and interviewing the foursome (in gratingly affected street patois), the final product gets accepted to Sundance, and suddenly the group's de facto leader, Q-Tip, reneges his support via Twitter. The actor/director always seemed like an opportunistic jerk-off, so when three-fourths of ATCQ boycott Park City and later whine on MTV about an errant production e-mail they received conspiring, "We'll fuck them," it's not particularly surprising. Everybody knows you don't trust a fanboy poseur.

The wrinkle in this retelling is that Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest is a phenomenal documentary. Making a "love letter" to his all-time favorite musicians, Rapaport devotes the film's first half to deftly curated archival material, golden-age hip-hop perspectives from the likes of DJ Red Alert and Monie Love, and testimony from an impressive constellation of Tribe's peers and pupils — from the Beastie Boys to Pharrell Williams to ?uestlove — on behalf of "the Miles Davis of hip-hop," as the Roots' Black Thought remembers the band's initial influence. (Black Thought also hilariously calls ATCQ's early kente cloth-and-dashiki wardrobe "some real questionable-type shit.")

The fawning is more deserved celebration than drooling hagiography. Then comes the film's second half, which veers into cinema vérité, focusing on the disintegrated ties between boyhood friends Tip, who has evolved into dapper VH1 royalty, and his twenty-year collaborator, Phife Dawg, a squeaky-voiced sports nut who's grown to resent how Tip's calculated swagger shrinks him into a sidekick. ("It's Diana Ross and the Supremes" is how Phife casts Tip's attitude to the rest of ATCQ. "I guess Ali [Shaheed Muhammad]'s Mary Wilson and I'm Florence Ballard? Get the fuck outta here.") Pitbull-stubborn and Type 1 diabetic, Phife becomes the movie's wounded dark horse, enduring a desperately needed kidney transplant, calling his boyhood buddy a "control freak," and venting about their "love/hate relationship." At one point during a 2008 Rock the Bells reunion tour, Phife gives Tip the silent treatment so resolutely that an awkward shouting match ensues, with Ali and Tribe's spiritual backbone Jarobi White left ducking the crossfire.

Despite the bickering, Beats, Rhymes & Life is not, thankfully, hip-hop's Some Kind of Monster. (At one point, when Phife's wife suggests band therapy, which Metallica underwent in that doc, he rebuffs her with, "I know what the problem is; I'm not paying for you to tell me nothing!") And instead of editing his subjects into pre ordained music-biz roles, Rapaport uses his access to present the members as full dynamic characters, letting a subway-stairs climbing scene linger long enough to catch Tip politely let an older lady walk in front of him while also portraying the rapper as a perfectionist headcase — as former Jive Records exec Barry Weiss puts it, "I love Q-Tip, but he's a fucking nut." It's easy to see how a control-freak perfectionist would mistake such character assessment for assassination. It's not, and even a fanboy poseur like Michael Rapaport knows that.

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