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Review: 'Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest'

By Mark Rabinowitz, Special to CNN
Actor Michael Rapaport tries out his directorial chops with "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest."
Actor Michael Rapaport tries out his directorial chops with "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • For hip-hop fans, the film offers frequent bits of interest, humor and musical delight
  • Phife Dawg is a type-1 diabetic who undergoes a kidney transplant during the film
  • Michael Rapaport has moderate success documenting the group's rises and falls
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(CNN) -- If "Can I kick it?" provokes an almost involuntary "Yes, you can!" and "You're on point, Phife" brings "All the time, Tip," then you're in the right place.

If your idea of hip-hop is confined to Snoop Dawg, NWA or Public Enemy, then you'll also benefit from spending a little time with Q-Tip, Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White, aka A Tribe Called Quest.

In "Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest," actor Michael Rapaport tries out his directorial chops by attempting to document the rise, fall, rise (again) and fall (again) of the seminal New York hip-hop group, achieving mixed results. Although the film is chock-a-block with great music and interesting characters, it lacks a coherent focus and seems to want to be all films to all people.

A mixture of footage shot for this film and that from other sources, the documentary jumps back and forth between the band's early days, their first split in 1998 and their reunion (and subsequent second break-up) in 2008 on the Rock the Bells tour. It gives a reasonably detailed and personal look into what made the band tick as well as what made them stop.

Unfortunately, it doesn't work as a whole.

Great documentaries most often latch on to the universality of their subject and connect on an emotional or intellectual level with their audience. They can be about an obscure, unattractive animal (naked mole rats, anyone?), a troubled child in a small town ("Billy the Kid") or a wacky modern-day philosopher king/tour guide ("The Cruise"), but they have a purpose, a point of view and a connection with the audience. "Beats, Rhymes & Life," while loaded with great material, lacks that connection.

Clearly charismatic and talented men, the four members of Tribe (White left the group for a significant stretch during its heyday but rejoined them for occasional reunion tours) have a lot to say about how they met, how they worked together and how they broke up, but the film never really pieces this together in any sort of narrative that can be closely followed.

Phife Dawg's health problems (he is a type-1 diabetic who undergoes a kidney transplant during the film) are mentioned, but only White, ironically the least-involved member of the group, shows any real emotions about his friend's dire health condition. In the film's only other real showing of emotion, we learn that Phife Dawg's wife is a match, and she donates one of her kidneys.

For New Yorkers or hip-hop fans (of which this critic is both), the film offers frequent bits of interest, humor and musical delight and is certainly a pleasant way to spend 98 minutes. Phife Dawg is especially loquacious, waxing rhapsodic on subjects as diverse as his eating habits (he lists Lorna Doones as one of the snack foods he's had to give up) and basketball.

In the latter, he's seen wearing an LA Lakers uniform, and Q-Tip questions him about his allegiance to his hometown New York Knicks and their new star, Amar'e Stoudemire. Phife replies, rapid-fire, without missing a beat, that he loves the Knicks, but their front office is a mess and "I like Amar'e Stoudemire, but I'm gonna need him to play some defense."

However, while the members of Tribe are all talented and charismatic artists with interesting and compelling stories to tell, "Beats, Rhymes & Life" doesn't tell them fully.

It's a complex story involving music, family, history and the greater world of New York hip-hop (which is in and of itself worth of a film), and what it comes down to is that Rapaport had so many directions to choose, so much footage to watch, that the film suffers from the overload.

Perhaps choosing a subject that is a little less close to his heart will afford Rapaport the distance that is sometimes needed to make a compelling documentary.

 
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