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Never Coming Full Circle: The Tragic Beauty of the Beastie Boys Story

Close to a decade since their disbandment, the Spike Jonze-directed 'Beastie Boys Story' is a vital, emotional, and ultimately satisfying document of one of the world's most popular music groups.

The most poignant moment of the Beastie Boys Story comes near its end. “Things in life never come full circle,” muses Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz as he holds back tears. “Maybe once or twice they’re hexagonal, but to me, they’re almost misshapen, as if drawn by a toddler in crayon.”

For those who were even moderately familiar with the iconic New York City hip-hop outfit, this moment would seem completely at odds with the group that they’ve known for years. After all, the Beastie Boys were the very definition of irreverent: dishing out legendary hits and memorable videos with their tongues firmly planted in their cheeks the whole time.

Why then does their recently-released documentary, Beastie Boys Story, bring its viewers close to tears as the tale of the group’s career come to a close? It is because, for a group who had always been so fiercely independent and adamant of doing things their own way, it’s almost a cruel irony that they were unable to finish things on their own terms.

But before we focus on the end of the story, let’s take a moment to focus on what got us to where we are today.

The Beastie Boys Story premieres on Apple TV+ on Friday, April 24th. (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

It was in 2018 that the Beastie Boys Book was released; an almost-600 page publication that chronicled the iconic career and legacy of the titular musical outfit. Describing their formation in the early Eighties to their untimely disbandment in 2012, it serves as one of the largest, most in-depth, and informative retrospective reads in recent times.

Upon its release, surviving members Michael “Mike D” Diamond and Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz hit the touring circuit, turning what would be a regular book tour into a veritable celebration of their career, with “feature readings, a Q&A, and a live score provided by the group’s longtime DJ Mixmaster Mike”.

Once all was said and done though, the pair realised just how valuable these live performances were, and after teaming up with longtime friend and collaborator Spike Jonze, the seeds were sewn for what would eventually become Beastie Boys Story.

“Mike and I wrote the bulk of the book tour show,” Ad-Rock explained in a humorous press release for the project. “We did that show a bunch of times and it was really fun, and really long, but then we were like, ‘Oh, shit. We should have filmed this.'”

Originally slated for global premiere at Austin’s South by Southwest conference in March, the global COVID-19 pandemic threw something of a spanner in the works. Now, with Beastie Boys Story set to make its premiere on Apple TV+ on April 24th, surviving members Mike D and Ad-Rock joined Rolling Stone for a video chat to discuss what went into the production of such a mesmerising, vulnerable, and vital piece of viewing.

Filmed at Brooklyn’s Kings Theater in April of 2019, Beastie Boys Story is far from an average piece of cinema. In fact, the beauty of its presentation lies within the immersive format it employs, switching between being a stand-up comedy performance, live stage show, and filmed documentary all within the space of seconds.

A fitting look back for an outfit that never quite fit into any particular box, Mike D explains that the origins of the Beastie Boys Story were somewhat unexpected, and – like the band themselves – evolved into an entirely different thing than what it first began as.

“It was a bit of a journey to get to this place,” he explains. “This show started from when we wrote this book, Beastie Boys Book, which came out a little bit ago. Then we had to go out and do readings or whatever, so we just thought instead of doing readings, we’re going to put together a show.

“What we ended up with was the right thing, this kind of hybrid, this amalgam of the stage show and documentary.”

“So Adam and I started talking about it, we started talking to Spike about it, and kind of tried to take things from the book and make it work, so it was a two-hour show that we did on stage. That went okay, so we got together with Spike with the intention of saying, ‘Let’s do it again, but really capture it on film.’

“The film that you see, that was quite different from originally what we thought of when we sat down with Spike; this idea of documenting this show that we were then doing, and rewriting it and performing it again.

“Once Spike and our editing team – Jeff Buchanan and Zoe Schack – got in there, they were like ‘Why don’t you tell the story, two-dimension? The story you tell in the theatre should have this whole other element of things coming to life with video clips and everything.'”

In true Beastie Boys fashion though, the end result was nothing like what was expected from the outset. In fact, while the format in which it is presented might help tell the story better than any standard documentary ever could, Mike D notes that the entire project slowly evolved over time.

“I think all of us – Spike included – were thinking it would be more documenting the stage show, and have it be different to the traditional documentary in that way,” he explains. “What we ended up with was the right thing, this kind of hybrid, this amalgam of the stage show and documentary.”

While Spike Jonze is famed for his work as the Academy Award-winning director behind films such as Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Her, his relationship with the Beastie Boys goes back quite some time.

Most notably, Jonze was responsible for the iconic 1994 video for the group’s song “Sabotage”, taking over the reins from Adam “MCA” Yauch’s Nathanial Hörnblowér alter ego to create a now-legendary clip that mixes in a trademark dash of humour thanks to parodies of Seventies cop shows, and slick stylistic choices to result in something that defined an entire era.

As Ad-Rock explains, Jonze’s influence in the project helped turn their live stage show into something “more movie-like” that featured “more of a storyline”.

“We wrote this thing and performed it a few times, and then decided to film it with Spike as director,” he explains. “So when we were rewriting that, Spike kept asking us about the emotions; ‘What did that feel like?’ He pushed us to talk about that more than we wanted to, but he looked at it from a cinematic view.”

“He helped make it really work as a story,” adds Mike D. “If it were up to Adam and I, we would happily have gone along with… it probably would’ve had a timeline to it, but we’re happy to live in this world of randomness and playlists, and chaos, and all this different stuff happening. Spike really wanted to get the story out of us.”

“He honed it in to make it more cohesive,” echoes Ad-Rock.

“Spike [Jonze] wanted us to re-write a lot of it, so the focus for him was for us to be pushing more of an emotional story rather than doing a funny show.”

When it’s considered that their book tour performances ran for up to three-and-a-half hours, it becomes far easier to appreciate the influence of Jonze in the final product. In fact, while his presence helped to turn the Beastie Boys Story into something far more cohesive, his suggestions helped to tighten up the script as well, ensuring that excess content was left on the cutting room floor.

“Spike wanted us to re-write a lot of it, so the focus for him was for us to be pushing more of an emotional story rather than doing a funny show,” recalls Ad-Rock. “The original thing had like a talk show on it, a fight scene; all this stuff that made Spike say, ‘Yeah that’s good, but let’s not have that.'”

Although the end of the Beastie Boys Story does feature a sampler of what was cut out (including appearances from Ben Stiller, David Cross, and Steve Buscemi as they jovially point out the lack of commercial success experienced by 1989’s Paul’s Boutique), Mike D notes there was never any apprehension that following a tighter script may have removed some of the spontaneity that a Beastie Boys production brings with it.

“I don’t think there’s ever too much danger of that, we can’t help ourselves,” he says with a laugh. “It doesn’t matter how many times we rewrote the thing, there was plenty of room for us to do whatever we do, which is basically just screw around and mess around.”

For any fan of the trio, the Beastie Boys Story is required viewing. Featuring a first-hand account of the band’s rise to fame on the streets of New York City in the early Eighties, to their status as a globe-trotting, headline-making, piss-taking touring outfit following the release of Licensed to Ill, it provides insight and access to the archives in a way that fans could only ever dream of.

As the film focuses on the release of albums such as Paul’s BoutiqueCheck Your Head, and Ill Communication, footage and stories surrounding their production come thick and fast. However, as it touches upon the release of 1998’s Hello Nasty, a sudden jump bypasses the release of their long-awaited comeback with To the 5 Boroughs in 2004, and the instrumental record, The Mix-Up, in 2007.

While it is somewhat jarring in terms of the narrative being told, it may serve as something of a question-raiser for many fans, especially those who may want relive – amongst other moments – the group’s 2005 Australian tour, or their iconic appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman.

However, according to Ad-Rock, there was no deeper meaning to the 11-year jump, rather, it was done for the sake of keeping the average viewer interested in the storyline.

“The reality is that around that time, we started getting older, there were no wild stories to tell,” he explains. “Adam [Yauch] and Mike were having kids…. There was no real chaos and drama.”

“That’ll be a different show for like, the Disney Channel,” Mike D jokes. “Oprah? Do you think Oprah would mess with that?”

“I think it worked well for the movie, but the reality is that around Hello Nasty, after that, we were just friends that were happy with one another, and we were just growing up,” adds Ad-Rock. “It just doesn’t make the most exciting movie.”

Ultimately, it’s at the tail-end of this jump forward that things begin to get heavy. As Ad-Rock notes, June 12th, 2009 was never set to be a day different to any other, but for even casual fans of the group, it now serves as a dark memorial that marks the last time that the Beastie Boys would ever perform live.

The performance took place as part of Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Music Festival, and the associated trip down south brought with it rather typical behaviour from the group. Footage from the film shows the group in and around Tennessee, walking the streets and appearing in grocery stores, portraying what would become the video clip for “Too Many Rappers” when it was released in 2015.

For most of those in attendance on the day, the group’s last song – a performance of “Sabotage” – would have simply served as the closer to a great day of music. None would’ve known it would be the final chapter in the group’s career as a live outfit.

“We really didn’t know until we were in that theatre with thousands of people how emotionally it was going to hit us.”

Tragically, just under three years later – on May 4th, 2012 – Adam “MCA” Yauch” would pass away from parotid cancer (a cancer of the salivary gland) at the age of 47, putting an end to the Beastie Boys as a band, and leaving 2011’s Hot Sauce Committee Part Two as not only their last studio release, but the first part of an unfinished masterpiece.

“We didn’t expect it to be that heavy,” Ad-Rock says with a slight chuckle. “We were just trying to get through the show without hurting ourselves.

“Every day, at least every other day – I’m sure Mike does the same thing –  we’re talking to friends like, ‘Oh, remember that time Yauch did this thing?’ We’re sharing stories and talking about Yauch all the time, but talking about my feelings about it is very different.”

“We had written the words and we had written the story, and I know it sounds cliché or that I’m making it up, but we really didn’t know until we were in that theatre with thousands of people how emotionally it was going to hit us,” adds Mike D.

Screenshot of the 'Beastie Boys Story'

Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz and Michael “Mike D” Diamond address a New York crowd in a still from the Beastie Boys Story. (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Indeed, the emotion was palpable. While Ad-Rock and Mike D both do their best to fight back tears, the audience too shares in this pain. It almost seems at odds with a group like the Beastie Boys, whose entire career – at least from the outside – seemed to be nothing but continual high points.

However, part of the beauty of the Beastie Boys Story is its vulnerability. While the highlights are undoubtedly celebrated, the lowlights aren’t ignored, ensuring that it tells all sides of the story without sugar-coating any of it.

Notable parts of the film include Ad-Rock’s regret at the group’s treatment of drummer Kate Shellenbach following their friendship with producer Rick Rubin, or how he briefly addresses the misogynistic lyrics of their 1986 single “Girls” (“Girls – to do the dishes/Girls – to clean up my room/Girls – to do the laundry“).

“We felt very privileged that we’re able to comment on all the stuff that we did when we were quite a bit younger, so it would be a shame not to call ourselves out,” explains Mike D. “Y’know, not to be critical of ourselves when we definitely deserve it.

“We felt very privileged that we’re able to comment on all the stuff that we did when we were quite a bit younger, so it would be a shame not to call ourselves out.”

“Once we were doing it in theatres was when it evolved, and we didn’t know what things would mean until we were doing it. To give credit where credit is due, that’s Spike Jonze, that was one of his many roles in the whole creation of this thing; always checking back in with us on the emotions, and what we were feeling.”

“If we’re talking about our band, we’re talking about all the stuff that we’ve done, and we’re talking about the old days and the Licensed to Ill times, and the stuff that we regret having said and done – like everybody, but in our case it’s different being in a band and saying all this shit on record – and things we would’ve done different,” begins Ad-Rock.

“So if we were to put together a show and bypassed all of that, it’s not being honest, with ourselves, or people who like our band that we can about. So we tried to keep it real.”

Following Yauch’s passing in 2012, the Beastie Boys quietly split up, with Mike D later explaining that the band will never again make new music or tour again without their late bandmate. Despite this understandable announcement, fans of the group have undoubtedly found themselves pining for any sort of return from the group.

Though their appetites have now been whetted thanks to the release of the Beastie Boys Book and the Beastie Boys Story, Mike D notes that these projects have given them a chance to continue their legacy, and approach things in the way that Yauch would’ve wanted them to.

“It’s been nice because it gives us a voice to make things and make them the way we always made stuff as a band.”

“It’s been nice because it gives us a voice to make things and make them the way we always made stuff as a band, which was trying to – that’s sort of how we’re always thinking about Yauch as well – think, ‘How are we going to do this differently to how anybody else has ever approached this?” Mike D notes.

“Every step of the way, when we were doing something, or when you’re about to go right, ‘Stop. Question it. Wait, why am I just going right? Instead, maybe I should be stepping into the space scene and wearing a space suit and going in a different direction?’

“That’s what I mean about having that presence of Yauch in there. It felt good being able to have these projects where we’re doing the same thing we’re always doing as a band, in terms of our ethic, but we’re not trying to be a band without Yauch, which would be weird.”

Though the initial premiere of the Beastie Boys Story was set to take place on March 16th at the since-cancelled South by Southwest conference, the recent COVID-19 pandemic saw the plan for a communal event in which it would be first experienced put on hold. However, it is now set to make its debut this week, appearing on Apple TV+ from April 24th.

Despite having their chance to celebrate the film’s release with those that love them being taken away, Mike D remains optimistic that the story of group’s legacy is set to help people find some semblance of support during this difficult time.

“We’re a little bit old school,” jokes Mike D. “We were excited to have this thing with people going to theatres and having this community thing, and being able to go with their friends and watch this thing.

“We seem to be a band that people connected with throughout different periods of their lives, so this is hopefully something to kind of help get them through everything that’s sort of going on.”

“So having that go away was definitely a bummer, but then, the flipside is that it does seem nice that with so many people at home with nothing to do… We seem to be a band that people connected with throughout different periods of their lives, so this is hopefully something to kind of help get them through everything that’s sort of going on.”

Though the Beastie Boys Story comes after a couple of years spent celebrating the life and legacy that the Beastie Boys themselves helped to curate, Mike D and Ad-Rock explain that while they’re unsure of what happens next, there’s bound to be new content for fans to experience somewhere down the line.

“Right now, I’m just trying not to catch the fucking coronavirus, so that’s what I’m looking ahead towards,” Ad-Rock says with a laugh. “Other than that, I don’t know what happens next.

“Y’know, I’m sure we’ll do something with Beastie Boys music that we have, or videos. I don’t know, we have tonnes and tonnes of music and footage and we have tonnes of stuff. So we’ll put something out one day, just ‘cause.”

“That’ll be the next mission,” Mike D concludes, leaving us – in true Beastie Boys fashion – to wonder what might just be coming next.

Beastie Boys Story is available to stream via Apple TV+ from April 24th. Relive their classic tracks with the Beastie Boys Essentials playlist via Apple Music below.