Based on the applause that greeted each name appearing in the jazzy animated opening credits of Michael Rapaport’s debut film, it was a crew-heavy audience at the film’s New York premiere. And as the room bounced and cheered with the opening beats of nearly every song, everybody else in the place thought A Tribe Called Quest is about as good as hip-hop ever was.
Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest is the sort of movie that gets called a labor of love, but in this case, that’s not a minus. Clearly a fan of the first degree, Rapaport frequently poses questions from off camera, and his film has a probing, enthusiastic quality that puts it well above your average music documentary. Key to its success is the group itself, whose easy-going charm and smarts make them as engaging on screen as they are on stage. Using a flurry of old yearbook photos and interviews, Rapaport builds a picture of the band as four like-minded borough kids — Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad, and Jarobi White — coming together in New York during the 1980s. While indulging in plenty of back-in-the-day remembrances, the film also creates a vivid image of the hip-hop that the group loved and also couldn’t wait to subvert.
Though at least one interviewee has fun commenting on Tribe’s “questionable” fashion choices back in the late 1980s and early 1990s (a baggy, colorful, neo-hippie concoction), the loose-formed “Native Tongues” collective the group put together with like-minded souls like Brand Nubian, De La Soul, Jungle Brothers, Moni Love, Black Sheep, and Queen Latifah set themselves apart from mainstream hip-hop with music and attitude, not just a propensity for dashikis. Tribe’s vibe is premised on Q-Tip’s laconic delivery mixed with a loose-flowing and jazzy production, grounded by gritty R&B drum hooks and the sharper, rawer vocals of Phife Dawg.
On albums like People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm (1990), and The Low-End Theory (1991), Tribe never felt the need for the endless boasting and calling out that would quickly envelop the rest of hip-hop in violent, self-destructive rivalries. This might also have kept them from the platinum status achieved by so many of their less talented, but more conformist contemporaries. Moni Love spells out the attraction of Tribe and the other Native Tongues members pretty succinctly: “We’re allowed to be different!”
As the film works through the band’s discography, it teases out hints of the demise to come, particularly in the tense relationship between Phife and Q-Tip, childhood friends whose fights make about as much sense those of a squabbling married couple. Rapaport’s super-fan propensities become more marked after the film notes the band’s last album release in 1998 and moves toward the semi-denouement of the 2008 reunion tour. Here Beats turns into a miniature version of the Metallica therapy-doc, Some Kind of Monster: Q-Tip complains about Phife having attitude, Phife gripes about Q-Tip’s control-freak tendencies, and so on. With all this bickering, Beats might have tipped into tiresome retread, but it’s not a film about settling scores, it’s a celebration.
The same cannot be said of Jiang Wen’s Let the Bullets Fly. A crazed, hijinks-riddled pseudo-epic, it features Chow Yun-Fat as a megalomaniac drug-gang boss and the boss’s softheaded double. It’s hard to say why the male villagers don’t ever wear shirts, why no one ever has to reload or why a train is being pulled by a team of horses. And why is everybody in the movie laughing so much?
The film is set in a small southern Chinese city in 1920, a time of battling warlords and omnipresent corruption. Director Jiang plays soldier-turned-brigand “Pocky” Zhang, who ambushes the local governor’s train, taking hostage the governor’s advisor and wife. Zhang then hangs up his bandit’s ways and bring his gang into town, posing as the dead governor. Instead of getting rich off taxing the poor and then splitting the proceeds with the rich (the standard practice), he decides to rob the rich and give it away to the poor. Only the richest man in town is Master Huang (Chow), who’s got a small army at his disposal and is eager to use it.
A genre-crossing Yojimbo-like satire, the plot is rife with trickery, gamesmanship, and bloodshed. Even better, it offers screwball buffoonery, with slapstick timing and rapid-fire verbal exchanges. Any semblance of logic, however, devolves quickly. Both Chow and Jiang acquit themselves particularly well, with the former clowning and mugging as he hasn’t done in decades, and the latter displaying an appealing heroic persona that somehow translates beautifully to comedy.
After a staggeringly baffling scene in which a man falsely accused of not paying for his food guts himself with a knife, the film jumps from one confrontation or betrayal to the next, with neck-snapping speed. The jokes become less and less tasteful (or even comprehensible), and by the time the action wraps up with a surreal assault on Huang’s complex, most viewers will be holding on for dear life amid all the good-humored chaos.