How Spike Jonze and the Beastie Boys Turned the Band's Famous Story into a Documentary
Fight for your right to watch this movie.
If you get the opportunity to get on a Zoom call with Beastie Boys Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock) and Mike Diamond (a.k.a. Mike D), as well as their longtime collaborator, Spike Jonze, I highly recommend that you take it. There's a good chance that you might not get a straight answer from any of them, but you will certainly have an entertaining 30 minutes.
Earlier this week, the trio participated in a series of "virtual roundtables" for their upcoming Apple TV+ documentary, simply titled Beastie Boys Story. As a documentary, Beastie Boys Story eschews the traditional talking-head format for a filmed version of their live show that plays as part stand-up comedy, part PowerPoint presentation, and part eulogy to their departed bandmate, Adam Yauch. In the two-hour-long movie, Horovitz and Diamond narrate the history of the band from punk-loving kids in New York to burnt-out phenoms in Los Angeles to evolved musicians renouncing their former sexism.
On a Zoom screen, they are silly and unfocused, but delightfully so. Jonze has made his name appear as playwright and actor "Wallace Shawn," while Horovitz keeps pulling out old photos and holding them up to the camera, including one he took in a Japanese photo booth where it looks like he's posing next to Leonardo DiCaprio. In between goofing off, they gave some insight as to how this unconventional film came to be.
The Beastie Boys Book was the doc's basis
The idea for the documentary was borne out of their book -- titled Beastie Boys Book -- a nearly 600-page tome about the history of the band, complete with sidebars from famous friends and illustrations. "You get a lot of pages for the money," Horovitz joked. Diamond explained they didn't want it to look like a traditional music book -- "I was walking down the street and one day I met this kid and this happened and then oh my god, everything was great, and then we hate each other and fuck those guys" -- and, similarly, they didn't want to do a typical book tour. So, instead of doing readings at book stores, the guys decided to put on a show of sorts, complete with stories and sketches. "Then we forgot to film it, so we asked Spike to help us film it and direct it," Horovitz said. "And we sort of rewrote it with him, or he made us rewrite it, rather. Then we filmed it and then he fucking turned it into a documentary." At which point Jonze popped in: "Adam, were you mad that I made you rewrite it?" "Yeah," Horovitz responded without missing a beat. "Adam doesn't also like to work that much," Jonze added. "So that was, like, a lot of work."
For his part, Jonze, in a later roundtable, explained what he liked about the two-man show concept. "I like the idea of trying to make something that represented all the things that I love about them and their band," he said. "I love the idea of just the people that were in the car on the road trip telling the story, not other people. So we don't have anyone else talking about the band from like a cultural perspective or [about] their relevance or influence or anything like that. I wanted to really just capture the way they create and the spirit in which they're a band, and their friendship."
Why they left a lot of the story out
What appears on screen by no means looks fully polished. In one recurring bit, Jonze consistently misses a cue for a graphic meant to pop up on the screen. The original "play," which is the word Jonze used, was three-and-a-half hours long. "We kind of knew they were going to be a little long and sloppy and messy, and that was going to be part of the fun live. We thought every night we'd do the show differently because Adam and Mike are consummate professionals and would just give me magic every night to work with," Jonze says. "Gold!" One moment that ended up on the cutting room floor was an opening sequence in which Horovitz tells a story about a 15-year prank that Yauch pulled on him. At this point, Horovitz asked Jonze: "Do you think that Mike and I are the worst actors you've ever worked with? Or on the list of the worst, talentless actors…" Jonze was diplomatic: "You're a natural storyteller, Adam." As for Diamond, he argued, "his natural style is, um, I'd say more like a boat without an anchor or a plane without wings." Diamond agreed that it was, "a little abstract."
...But they wanted to tell the whole story
While the anarchic, hilarious vibe that the Beasties are known for is present throughout the film -- they even compare themselves to the Three Stooges -- they also stretch sobering moments throughout the narrative. They express regret over leaving original member Kate Schellenbach behind and the sexism in their early lyrics, issuing yet another mea culpa for "Girls." For Horovitz, it was important to tell the story from beginning to end, even though they had to cut some material for the sake of cinematic conventions. "There were, you know, certain details about our band that are important for us," Horovitz said. "Talking about Kate Schellenbach is very important to us, and just different details of our band. Like, if we're going to tell a story, you got to tell the story." In another interview, Diamond explained that owning up to their flaws makes conversations with their kids easier. "We're all going to have these actions that we're ultimately not proud of, and we're all gonna have situations in our lives that we could have handled better and could handle better," he said. "We're so grateful. Here I am, with my best friends, and we get to talk about that."
Yauch gets to be "on stage" with them
If Beastie Boys Story is anything, it's Mike D and Ad-Rock's homage to the person who isn't there beside them: Adam Yauch, who died of cancer in 2012. They speak about Yauch in reverent terms. He was the weird genius with the Swiss alter ego, Nathanial Hornblower, who helped the group survive and change over the years. "Mike and Adam talked and I talked about that we wanted Yauch to be on stage with us," Jonze said. "We just wanted to feel him on stage." The production team got hundreds of hours of raw footage from MTV that editors Jeff Buchanan and Zoe Schack combed through looking for moments where they could highlight Yauch's voice. "Most of the interviews are the three of them together and a lot of times it's hard to get a straight answer from them. I don't know if you guys have noticed that, but I find them very, very difficult," Jonze said. "But anyways, there was only one, maybe two interviews where it was them separate. It was very exciting when we found that footage, because we didn't know it existed."
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