Life in the Big Apple: assessing the Beastie Boys Story

Gangly garage-rap renegades reunite in a new doc, an infectious and funny mix of slide show and stand-up comedy, with a little help from Spike Jonze

The B boys are back in a new documentary for Apple TV+. In Beastie Boys Story, which has been streaming since April 24 and is directed by friend of the band Spike Jonze, the two surviving members—Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz (the good looking one) and Michael “Mike D” Diamond (the not good looking one)—are reunited with the late Adam “MCA” Yauch through archival clips and a bit of wacky stagecraft by Jonze.

Adapted from a live show and book of the same name, BBS is a cinematic synthesis of the two, tracing the boys’ rise from gangly garage-rap renegades to, well, gangly garage-rap veterans.

It’s not just their open letter to NYC but to the world, dammit.

Before they were stars, Adam H., Michael, and Adam Y. were three teens, rollicking around the New York punk scene of the 1980s. As upstart performers, they were a novelty act—a white-face Run DMC meets the Marx Brothers that were the incongruous opening act for Madonna on her first tour.

With their debut LP License To Ill, the unlikely MCs hit pay dirt; Fight For Your Right (To Party) (later covered by fellow New Yorkers Blondie) and No Sleep ’Till Brooklyn, though pissed-up frat-guy satires, were also cultural-landscaping bangers. While the more mature, accomplished bells/whistles direction personified by Sabotage and Intergalactic have certainly aged better.

There’s no Icarus-like narrative here, but rather one that evokes three schoolmates getting bar mitzvahed. Still, the backstory reveals that the bigger they got, the more the joke got away. 

After struggling to deliver a follow-up record on time, Def Jam cut the group loose. The heady Paul’s Boutique, released on EMI’s Capitol Records, bombed spectacularly.

Still, the making of it provides primo doc fodder. We see the boys re-engineer their sound—channeling their New York breeding through punk, rap, and dub reggae. We see them base business decisions on inside jokes, from hiring a manager because he also worked with Lionel Richie (oh, hello!), to blowing the advance from Boutique on a Hollywood Hills mansion, complete with a pool and 1970s-style grotto. They’re adult men by this point, but to watch them live, work and dick around together is a teenage wet dream.

Horovitz and Diamond roast each other in the way lifelong pals do, while Jonze serves up creaky rear-projection backdrops, sets a montage of hard-workin’ hip-hop hustle to Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5, and loops a clip of Horovitz’s inauspicious acting debut — as he drives a red Maserati convertible into a designer swimming pool — until it becomes an absurd image of the excess that the band succumbed to at the height of their early fame.

If the Beastie Boys’ narrative feels well-trod — cartoonish frat-rappers who sold millions, only to all-but vanish and reinvent themselves as vanguard hip-hop statesmen — then it gets fleshed out with a wealth of detail here, both anecdotal and surprisingly emotional, if a bit over-rehearsed end of the pier double act in parts.

Horowitz and Diamond take it back to their formative days as Manhattan high school punks, meeting at Bad Brains and Misfits shows and galvanized by Yauch, who at 16 was sporting the trench coat, buttons and combat boots of the downtown hardcore scene.

“We were like Monty Python as much as we were Black Flag,” says Diamond.

Throughout, Yauch, a sensitive punk who became unnerved by the excesses of their public personas, provides the film’s emotional and artistic core. He also did the most to ensure that, as the boys grew up, they didn’t grow apart. And while his untimely death—eight years ago today, in fact—cut that bond short, watching him offers a catharsis.

Have you ever seen a Beastie Boy cry? Watch Story and try not to do the same. It got to me too, especially as I have a personal connection to the rare form of parotid cancer that claimed him.

And while its a surprisingly engaging retelling of the story, I feel it’s probably left to me to point out that certain less impressive aspects of the Boys’ career have been papered over, in particular in the run up to Licence To Ill, when their teenage tawdriness got the better of them, and the trio lost their battle with Def Jam because they wanted to call their grand statement of intent Don’t Be A Faggot. Yes, really.

With pressure from the label to change the title, Russell Simmons, the Beastie Boys’ manager and head of Def Jam Records at the time, all concerned agreed on Licence To Ill, which was a pun on James Bond’s 007 modus operandi, licence to kill (the film came later). No shit, Sherlock!

Though perhaps it was only to be expected from a bunch of immature misogynists who boasted at the time that they make “basically fairly sexist drunk records,” why anyone should want to be a small meatball in gravy I’ve never quite understood.

Talking of meatballs.

I don’t mind telling you, I used to have a bit of a thing for Ad-Rock for all of five minutes, until I read such beastly boy nastiness in Smash Hits or whatever the magazine was I reading at the time.

Still, they saw the error of their wayward ways. In 1999, Adam “Ad-Rock” issued a public apology for the album’s earlier title and questionable content, though there was no mention of the libellous accusations he made against the New York LGBT crowd based around the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. 

“I would like to… formally apologise to the entire gay and lesbian community for the shitty and ignorant things we said on our first record, 1986’s Licensed to Ill. There are no excuses. But time has healed our stupidity… We hope that you’ll accept this long overdue apology.” 

For the record: Horovitz grew up in Manhattan’s arty gay-identified West Village; his dad is the playwright Israel Horovitz. Mike D grew up on Manhattan’s liberal-Jewish-yuppie-identified Upper West Side, a product of Bronx-striver parents. Yauch hailed from Brooklyn Heights, one of the borough’s most affluent nabes; his dad is a retired architect and painter. Mom grew up on Brooklyn’s Coney Island and Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Go figure.

Make sure you watch the film anyway. It’s nostalgic, defiant, together and stirring.

All the things I’m partial to then.

Steve Pafford

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