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The Very Entertaining Doc ‘Beastie Boys Story’ Misses Adam Yauch Even More Than You Do

In this TED-Talk-like film, the surviving members look back at their band’s creative evolution. But MCA's death leaves a hole in the center they know they’ll never fill.

As much as I loved the Beastie Boys’ music, I was equally fond of their story. It’s one that even those with a cursory knowledge of their 25-year career are probably familiar with: how three wiseass young white kids from New York became overnight sensations by melding rap’s freshness with hard rock’s attitude — only to morph into wise, woke elder statesmen who rejected their older hits’ meathead tendencies to become one of the most dexterous, politically conscious bands in all of popular music. 

Sure, that’s a touchy-feely story, but it was also a genuine progression for Michael “Mike D” Diamond, Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Adam “MCA” Yauch, who went from boys to men before our eyes. That their music didn’t suffer in the process — to my mind, 1999’s Hello Nasty beats 1986’s epochal Licensed to Ill — only validated the trio’s maturation, allowing them not just to broaden their musical palette but also their lyrical scope. Fighting for your right to party is awesome, but making gender equality and introspection rock is even more impressive.

The Beastie Boys’ run was cut short by Yauch’s death in 2012 at the age of 47, and in the past decade the surviving members have mostly focused on their own projects, while collaborating on 2018’s Beastie Boys Book, a curated, kaleidoscopic tour through the group’s history. The success of that book — equal parts summation and celebration — prompted Diamond and Horovitz to stage a few performances that were essentially two-man-show versions of the tome’s collection of memories and highlights. And now that show, filmed at the Kings Theatre in Brooklyn, has become Beastie Boys Story, a richly pleasant nostalgia trip premiering Friday on Apple TV+. What gives the movie its connective tissue is the band’s familiar, comforting narrative — watch these brats grow up and change their ways — but there’s also a nagging, poignant limitation to Beastie Boys Story that everyone involved embraces unapologetically. This is a story of three good friends only told by two of them, because the third is gone.

Now in their 50s, Diamond and Horovitz come on stage to rapturous applause, and for the next two hours, they’ll treat the crowd to a TED-Talk-like slide show of the Beasties’ career, shaking their heads at their sophomoric younger selves and taking pains to point out how they’re not the frat-boy bozos they first appeared to be. As on the band’s multi-platinum records, Diamond is the more laidback one, while Horovitz (who’s acted in movies) is more charismatic — a natural showman and storyteller. And from the start, the guys don’t pretend that Yauch’s absence isn’t conspicuous. “When Adam died, we stopped being a band,” Horovitz admits, and while Beastie Boys Story is very much a feel-good recounting of the group’s ups and downs, its tragic ending is preordained. In fact, it’s the only reason why Diamond and Horovitz are there and why we’re watching. We all know Beastie Boys are done — we just want a chance to say goodbye.

As a piece of film, Beastie Boys Story (which is directed by the group’s longtime collaborator, Her filmmaker Spike Jonze) is hardly groundbreaking. Jonze shoots the performance like a stand-up special, frequently cutting to archival footage and photos, which are also projected behind Diamond and Horovitz during the show. (The show has an enjoyably unpretentious, unpolished quality, with the technical glitches left in.) The Beasties’ story contains all the predictable plot points: Our heroes taste success, get burned out, lose their way, gain new inspiration, triumph over the odds, blah blah blah. As with the book, the documentary is a collectible geared to the band’s many, many fans. If you think you want to see this, you’ll be happy you did — although, if you have Beastie Boys Book, some of the anecdotes and revelations won’t be surprising, like what the band’s name stands for or which album is Horovitz’s favorite. (I agree with you, Ad-Rock.)

Resistant to nostalgia, I was nonetheless curious about Beastie Boys Story because I wanted to see how the surviving members would approach a project like this. Whether as brilliant, snot-nosed upstarts or wizened veterans, Beastie Boys abhorred sentimentality and savored zigging when everyone else zagged. They lived to blend genres and pursue creative directions that others counseled against — their 1990s albums Check Your Head and Ill Communication found them dedicated to proving that they were actual musicians, not just rappers — and although they were indebted to old-school styles like funk, disco and mid-1980s hip-hop, they constantly found funny and exciting new ways to reinvent bygone sounds. Sure, they’d grown up along the way — ditching the sexist shit for a more progressive perspective — but they’d never gone soft.

But the simple fact is that nobody is the same bright-eyed twit they were at 20 when they’re in the 50s — especially if you happen to be a global superstar who has amassed a small fortune. Diamond possesses the same wry, goofy demeanor, and Horovitz’s screechy voice remains, but they approach Beastie Boys Story as slightly corny middle-aged men closing a chapter of their lives. When they imitate their younger selves, which they do often in the film, it’s with a mix of embarrassment and generosity. Diamond and Horovitz love those brash knuckleheads, but they’re also grateful to be where there are now. In one of Beastie Boys Story’s most touching moments, Diamond recalls an interview that Horovitz gave late in their career, when a reporter asked if he felt like a hypocrite espousing feminist viewpoints after Licensed to Ill’s objectification of women. Horovitz’s response was that he’d rather be a hypocrite than stay the dummy he used to be.

Rock ‘n’ roll loves its bad boys, but it also adores former hellions who renounce their sinful ways and become older-but-wiser survivors. Red Hot Chili Peppers are the most obvious example of this template, becoming arena favorites over the last 30 years by reminding the world that they’ve struggled with drug addiction. But unlike that band’s mournful-wanderer shtick, Beastie Boys’ path to enlightenment always felt so much more fun. The Beasties gave props to women and the Dalai Lama, toasted New York after 9/11 and bashed George W. Bush, but always with a sense of humor that made their political consciousness infectious. It never felt like a calculated pivot — rather, it seemed ingrained in their curious, intelligent selves. Just as they devoured punk and hip-hop as kids, they kept learning as adults, gaining wisdom along with gray hairs.

How much of that evolution had to do with Yauch is a question only his former bandmates will ever know completely. But in Beastie Boys Story, they give their fallen comrade a lot of the credit, painting him an artist who was excited to experiment and follow whatever tangent interested him — whether it was crafting the drum loop for “Rhymin & Stealin” out of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” or diving deep into Buddhism, educating Generation X about the Free Tibet movement in the process. 

Directing many of the Beasties’ videos under his nom de plume Nathanial Hörnblowér — even sometimes appearing dressed in public as his wacky alter ego, most memorably when he bum-rushed the stage during the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards — Yauch is presented as a renaissance man and global citizen, a deeply spiritual person and someone unafraid to speak his mind. It’s extraordinary to think that, way back in 1998 — years before the xenophobia that spread after 9/11 — Yauch was condemning Islamophobia while accepting MTV’s Vanguard Award alongside his fellow Boys, preaching non-violence as a way to resolve America’s tensions with Middle Eastern nations. 

Beastie Boys Story features a wealth of archival clips of Yauch, but that can’t distract from the realization that the movie is inevitably poorer for his physical absence. Early in the film, we see a clip of fans at a Beasties show explaining which band member is their favorite. I don’t think I ever had one — the whole always seemed greater than the individual parts. Their three interlocking voices — one gruff, one whiny, one cocky (and which member was which could alternate) — provided the sound of Beastie Boys, and I’m not even sure if, at the time, I knew it was Yauch who declared on Ill Communication’s “Sure Shot” that “I want to say a little something that’s long overdue / The disrespect to women has got to be through / To all the mothers and the sisters and the wives and friends / I wanna offer my love and respect to the end.” To me, it was just the Beastie Boys.

But as entertaining as Diamond and Horovitz are in Beastie Boys Story, they simply feel like two dudes — they’re not the Beastie Boys. That was three people, their personalities and their long friendship contributing to a few decades’ worth of terrific albums that bounced around from rap to metal to punk to disco to funk to bossa nova to Buddhist chants. On stage in Brooklyn, Diamond and Horovitz have stories to tell about how their indelible songs came together, but even they don’t entirely seem to understand how it all happened. It’s almost as if it wasn’t them — it was the Beastie Boys. And once Yauch was gone, that was gone forever, too. You’ll miss Yauch’s presence in the movie. But not as much as those other two guys do.