Too bad it’s on Apple TV+. Like I always tell you, distribution is king, and if you want someone to experience your art, you want it to have the widest distribution possible. Sure, you can be the Wu-Tang Clan, and sell your album for millions to Martin Shkreli, but that’s not about art, but money. And ultimately the Beastie Boys were about art.
I know, I know, sounds ridiculous, especially if you know them from their “Fight For Your Right” days, but this flick shows the full oeuvre, without trying to be self-aggrandizing it ends up making the band look pretty damn good. You see they ended up hating themselves and the audience they brought. They didn’t want to be those “Fight For Your Right” guys anymore. So, they broke up with their label and management (the dirty details are glossed over here), and reunited in Los Angeles to make the legendary “Paul’s Boutique” which was released to crickets. And they felt the impact. Not only did no one care, not only were they not on MTV, when they finally went back on the road they had to play clubs, not Madison Square Garden, whose boards they’d plied in the wake of “Licensed to Ill.”
So there’s an arc. They were bratty kids. And now they’re grown-up men, well, at least the two who’ve survived.
They’re city kids. And if you’re lucky enough to know some, you know they’re different. They grow up fast in Manhattan. And you might be afraid to ride the subway, but they aren’t. And the world is at their fingertips, this is not the suburbs where you can only dream, you can take action, assuming you’ve got the motivation. And they all wanted to play, but it was Adam Yauch who pushed them, you can see what a huge role he played, why the band could never continue without him.
Most people heard about the trio when they opened for Madonna. To a terrible reception. Well, the truth is they weren’t that big at the time, Freddy DeMann wanted Run-DMC, but that was 20k, and the Beastie Boys did it for $500, a show that is. And when they come back, they’re nowhere. Oh, they’ve got Russell Simmons as a manager, and Rick Rubin as a producer, but they can’t sell any tickets, their twelve inches get club play, but if you think club play translates to huge fandom and riches, you’ve probably never been to a club.
So, these kids are unsupervised, skipping school, having fun.
That’s one-half of the paradigm. They’re doing it to hang with their friends and have fun. And they continue to have fun, but they don’t really get serious until after the failure of “Paul’s Boutique.”
Most people are not willing to reinvent themselves, they want to play with a net, they want a guarantee, which is why you went to college and the Beastie Boys did not. Why you want to be behind the scenes instead of on stage. You want an income and a family, you don’t want to put it all on the line.
But that’s what an artist does.
So, they’re experimenting. Their talent is their brains, not their musical chops. How can they push the envelope. And after having no control with “Licensed to Ill,” then they want all the control, down to imaging and videos, never mind the recording process. They’re growing.
And when a reporter calls Yauch a hypocrite, for supporting women after his partying days, he says he’d rather be called a hypocrite than to be stuck in the same beliefs, being the same person ad infinitum.
Now that’s funny, because in politics you’ve got to be the same person, you can’t change your mind, it’s gotcha all the time. And music journalism is either fawning or gotcha, and usually those giving answers can barely speak and spell, but Adam had thought about it, he’d grown. Isn’t that what life is about?
Now they just want you to repeat yourself, to make that money. Maybe you just want to repeat yourself to make that money.
And “Paul’s Boutique” is just before the Tommy Mottola era, when everything changed. Capitol gave the Beasties money, then they waited for the album. This was the seventies ethos, the label made its bet and the artist was in control. But starting with Mottola…the whole business became Clive Davis 24/7. The exec was king. The exec told you what to record. The exec decided whether to put out your album. And the execs know something, but they’re not artists, and if I want to bet on something resonating with the public, I’ll put my money on artists all day long. And to make a point, much of the dreck that Tommy and Clive released was commerce, not art.
So maybe you hate the Beastie Boys’ music. Maybe you hate the Beastie Boys. Maybe you know next to nothing about the Beastie Boys. But you should still watch this film. Because the music is secondary. Oh, they tell how they created it, but the driving force is creativity and life in the creative land. Turns out you’ve got to be different to create. Which is why if you’re working at the law firm, or as a doctor or an accountant, chances are you’re never going to make it in music. The Beasties were living on nothing, hanging out on the street, in Rick’s dorm room, in Russell’s office, the clubs. It was a 24/7 job getting inspired. And some of their greatest ideas came when they weren’t trying, when they were just walking down the street and spontaneous combustion created a song.
Like the riff of “Sabotage.” Adam Yauch was just jamming. You’ve got to be living the life for happy accidents to happen.
And you have to be willing to put it all on the line, you have to be willing to go broke, you have to be willing to tumble down the ladder, something professionals are loath to do. Yes, professionals use their years to get more bucks, a bigger office and more status. It’s a game. The truth is art is not a game, but a life. Which is why artists run through the money, they’re not thinking about it.
But don’t think everybody with a hit record is an artist.
And, once again, pop music is about inspiration, not skill. Who cares if you went to Berklee, does the lightning strike and can you bottle it, can you lay it down on wax?
The Beasties are in their fifties now. “Licensed to Ill” was thirty four years ago. There’s history here. Watching the footage of MTV you’ll remember how famous the VJs were. How important getting your video played was. And if you were on the team, if you’d made it, they’d fly you down for spring break and…
All those people, all that on screen infrastructure of MTV, is history. Because they only had one note, that’s all they could do. They could go back to radio, but no one is crushing on Martha Quinn anymore, hanging on the words of Kurt Loder. These people are stuck in the past.
Curiously, the Beastie Boys were not. They laid it all on the line, they risked, they changed, they followed their muse, they got inspired, they played without a net.
It doesn’t always work. It’s hard to make it and stay there, there are always ups and downs.
But who thought the best film to learn these lessons would be one about the Beastie Boys?
Certainly not me.