Michael Rapoport was 18 when he heard “A Tribe Called Quest” for the first time. It was, he says, like discovering the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Life-changing.
Twenty-three years later, the actor from Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino’s “True Romance,” from James Mangold’s “Cop Land” and TV’s “Boston Public,” has made a documentary — his first film as a director — about the seminal hip-hop band from Queens.
“Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest” — with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White crossing longitudes and latitudes on their 2008 reunion tour — opened last week. It is more than just a concert movie, more than a band tribute. Stuff happened while Rapoport and his crew tagged along on the not exactly harmonious tour. Serious stuff.
“I didn’t expect the film to be as interpersonal as it turned out,” Rapoport says. “I didn’t expect the film to be as emotionally charged as it turned out. And I did not expect — nor did I know of — the extent of Phife’s health problems, and the struggles that he had gone through. What diabetes had done to his body. ...
“I mean, you’re making a documentary about your favorite group, and then while you’re making the documentary, one of the key members of the group has a health crisis where he needs a kidney transplant!
“I knew that the film was going to take on bigger themes than I had imagined.”
Rapoport debuted his independently financed “Beats, Rhymes & Life” in January at Sundance, where Sony Pictures Classics scooped it up. “That’s the same outfit that releases Pedro Almodovar films and Woody Allen films,” he notes with pride. “And I’ll bet you that Pedro Almodovar and Woody Allen are saying, ‘We’re so happy to be on the same roster as Michael Rapoport! They’re resting easy, knowing that they’re in the same company.”
Rapoport sees his “Tribe Called Quest” doc as a classic rock-and-roll story.
“You know, four guys from Queens, they were doing it in the basement for fun, they got some attention, they signed a record deal, they had a little bit of success, they go to Europe, they’re 17, 18 years old, they’re touring, they got all the groupies, they become more popular and even more popular — then money, egos, fame, and the implosion of the group.”
To put this narrative together, Rapoport, a New Yorker who now lives with his wife and kids in Los Angeles, says he looked at every music doc he could get his hands on.
The Ramones’ “End of the Century,” check.
The Maysles’ Stones documentary, “Gimme Shelter,” check.
Martin Scorsese’s salute to The Band, “The Last Waltz.” The Metallica doc, “Some Kind of Monster.” The Anvil doc. Films about Blondie, about Wilco, about singer/songwriter/outsider artist Daniel Johnston — Rapoport studied them all.
“I watched every single music documentary I could find, just for reference, for inspiration, to make me feel like I wasn’t crazy during the editing process,” says the actor and first-time filmmaker, who had more than 100 hours of footage to whittle down to feature length.
“Sometimes I was like, how am I going to get through this?” he says. “It was so overwhelming: the editing process, and dealing with the group, and trying to pull stories out of them, and trying to connect the dots. The whole thing was a challenge.”
STRANGER THAN FICTION
“Tabloid,” Errol Morris’ new doozy of a doc, is about one Joyce McKinney, a former beauty queen who sits before Morris’ patented Interrotron camera with a bizarre story to tell: about how, way back in the 1970s, she pursued the man she loved from Utah to England, where she lured the Mormon missionary to a remote cottage and kept him captive.
The British tabloids had a field day with the “sex in chains” scandal. Now the Academy Award-winning director of “The Fog of War,” director of “The Thin Blue Line” and “Fast, Cheap and Out of Control,” is having a field day, too.
And whether or not you believe McKinney’s account, that’s almost beside the point. “If you tell a lie long enough,” McKinney herself reflects in the film, “you learn to believe it.”
At this point in his career, Morris, who premiered “Tabloid” at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall, isn’t necessarily surprised by such true-life tales — and characters. Delighted, perhaps, and intrigued, but hardly surprised.
“Life is strange,” says the Cambridge, Mass.-based director. “You’d like to think that it really isn’t strange — but it really is. And often fiction is created, in a way, to sanitize reality, or make sense of reality. But reality is inherently strange, and very, very hard to make sense of.
“In fact, there’s even the possibility it may make no sense.”
Morris sees his film as a story about “eternal faithfulness, faithfulness beyond death.” And he hopes that his subject, McKinney — a woman with sparkling eyes and an IQ of 168 — doesn’t come off as a joke.
“I really do believe that she emerges as a complex and interesting character. She’s clearly smart, she’s very funny, there’s a kind of theatricality there. You would have to call it a performance of some kind or another. ... She herself acknowledges it when she says, ‘thank God for all those years of drama school.’”
And “Tabloid” doesn’t end with the “sex in chains” business. In fact, that’s just where it starts.
“It’s a preposterous story,” Morris agrees, “but what’s even more preposterous about it is that it’s kind of real. And she got all of these people to go along with her — including me, I might add.”