We’re living through a golden age for the documentary. The genre is as popular as it’s ever been, thanks to the proliferation of streaming services dumping a thousand hours of programming every month. Sure, the vast majority of it is garbage, like “Tiger King,” or hastily assembled “real crime” stories that have barely enough content to fill a single episode of Dateline NBC, yet stretch it out six hours. While the documentary is at peak popularity, it hasn’t exactly pushed any boundaries lately. Director Spike Jonze tries to do something a little different with a live-performance/documentary hybrid mashup, “Beastie Boys Story.
For a generation of fans, the Beastie Boys represent a lengthy musical maturation. From their adolescent party anthems on “License to Ill” through the evolutionary funk filters of “Paul’s Boutique” and “Check Your Head,” to a period of mainstream success that led to chart-topping hit singles, like “Sabotage” and “Intergalactic,” there are few bands that have had such a chaotic and cathartic journey.
“Beastie Boys Story” tries to tinker with the traditional documentary formula, and the results are somewhat mixed.
The film tells the story of the Beastie Boys from the perspective of its two living members, Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad Rock). They present their story live on stage, much like a TED Talk—dwarfed by a massive projection screen that allows for images, sounds and cutaway gags, as they lay out their journey to an audience in a two-man show. There’s a lot of great personal moments and a nice overview of their career. Thankfully, there’s a lot of time spent on their formative years, tracking how they went from punk rock-loving kids to a best-selling hip-hop testosterone-fueled freak show.
For those old-school Beastie Boy fans, there are a number of great stories shared—insights and personal moments that will no doubt delight those of us who grew up listening to their music. It’s a finely executed, nostalgic hike through the highlights and lowlights of their career. For the uninitiated, the film is a little devoid of context. Audiences who know nothing of the Beastie Boys might wonder what exactly they’re watching or why exactly they’re supposed to care.
One of the main tenets of documentaries is the use of perspectives to help shape the story and provide colors and textures of the world the subjects existed within. In the case of music docs, this is often achieved by cutting away to other prominent figures of the era discussing the music scene or hearing from other artists sharing their thoughts on the band.
For instance, did you know the Beastie Boys opened for Madonna on the singer’s first tour? Super interesting. I would have liked to hear her perspective on their antics. “Beastie Boys Story” feels like a slight retelling of the band’s story for only the most ardent fans. There are so many moments that feel like they could have greatly benefited from lengthier marination.
It’s the inverse of so many streaming-service documentaries: a story that could easily fill a six-hour series compressed into under two hours. Without additional perspectives, we’re limited to Ad Rock and Mike D’s high-energy retellings, as they play to an auditorium full of fans.
There’s nothing wrong with “Beastie Boys Story,” but it feels like a victory lap for pre-existing fans, not a film that will create new ones. Nor does it provide depth for super-fans to feel satisfied. Even calling it a “documentary” feels like a stretch. It’s a documentary the same way ketchup is classified as a vegetable. Technically, there’s tomato in there, but you wouldn’t feel comfortable using it to make a BLT.
There are elements of documentary filmmaking here to tell a story. However, it lacks the comprehensive examination and perspective that makes a good doc.