The most transfixing moment in Beats, Rhymes & Life: The Travels of A Tribe Called Quest, Michael Rapaport's documentary about the epochal early-'90s hip-hop group, comes in a single shot toward the end. On the left side of the frame is Q-Tip: tall, broad-shouldered, wolfishly handsome. On the right is Phife Dawg: bug-eyed, built like Humpty Dumpty, "height of Mugsy Bogues, complexion of a hockey puck," as he once succinctly rapped. Up to this point, the two rappers have spent much of the film complaining about each other behind each other's backs—turning to the camera in separate interviews to air gripes and grievances born long ago. But here they are in a cautious détente at a Manhattan studio, practicing for a one-off reunion show. As their music plays, the pair break into a hypnotically odd synchronized dance, bopping and kicking, arms undulating in time as though borne aloft by the same current. "Like this," Q-Tip says, and Phife, glancing over at him, follows. The camera remains still and at a distance, loath to break the spell.
The sight of these physically mismatched men dancing is inherently comical, but there's also something deeply touching about it: These are two lifelong friends, putting their festering resentments on hold and swaying, goofily, as one. Like Anvil!, Sacha Gervasi's 2008 documentary about two lovable, bickering metalheads, Beats, Rhymes & Life is a music documentary with a buddy-movie heart. A Tribe Called Quest, which formed in Queens in 1988, is rounded out by the DJ and producer Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White (whose role, beyond spiritual mascot, has always been unclear and remains so here), but in this film Muhammad and White are innocent bystanders to the main event, which is the love-hate relationship between the guys on the mics.
A Tribe Called Quest's last album came out in 1998 and its last album truly worth buying came out in 1993, and yet Beats, Rhymes & Life, which traces the group's breakout success and slow fade into stagnation and acrimony, enjoys fairly serendipitous timing. Tribe's music has never gone out of style, exactly; it's too vibrant and sturdily assembled, and the rhymes unfold with a conversational esprit that's proven evergreen. But the black-boho aesthetic that the group exemplified—no-frills jazz loops over hard-hitting snares, lighthearted rhymes, a killer wardrobe of "Stay Black" baseball caps and day-glo kente cloth—has begun a nostalgia-driven return to vogue in hip-hop after the long dominance of gruffer, tougher styles.
Before the intra-group beefs take center stage, there's plenty in Beats, Rhymes & Life to sate nostalgists. Rapaport—a character actor and longtime Tribe fan making his unexpectedly assured directing debut—weaves a mini-history of hip-hop's boisterous infancy into his history of Tribe's genesis. Muhammad recalls sitting on his fire escape as a kid and hearing "this roar" from the park across the street: one of the hip-hop parties annexing schoolyards, recreation centers, and other public spaces across the city in the late '70s and early '80s; elsewhere, Q-Tip talks about listening to tastemaker radio DJs Red Alert and Mr. Magic, and bright, hand-drawn flyers for early rap shows fill the screen. In one scene, Rapaport follows Q-Tip and Muhammad back to Manhattan's Murry Bergtraum High School, where Q-Tip (who's known Phife since grade school) first met Muhammad. They hug faculty members, pause to chuckle at Q-Tip's yearbook photo (dashing, unsurprisingly), and wind up in the auditorium, where Q-Tip demonstrates the unique acoustics of a school desk when repurposed as a drum.
In moments like this, Rapaport captures the deep joy these guys brought to their music. We watch as Q-Tip sits in a home studio and recounts the creation of one of Tribe's most beloved beats: He marvels at the babe-and-a-hot-car cover art that led him to purchase Lonnie Smith's * 1970 jazz LP Drives("He's got the fuckin' Lincoln!" "Chick is bad!"), cues up a track, and recreates the epiphanic moment when he first looped the drums for the group's "Can I Kick It?" Rapaport bolsters such music-geek manna with lively interviews with Tribe fans and friends including Monie Love, Pharrell Williams, Questlove, and the Beastie Boys.
The exact reasons Phife and Q-Tip fell apart—their tensions climax here with a 2008 backstage eruption shot, handheld and in low light—are ultimately left vague, perhaps because the reasons are vague even to them by now. But the split seems to have stemmed from Tip's trying perfectionist streak and the simple fact that he has always been the group's star despite Phife's abundant talent. Tribe's debut album is for long stretches a solo showcase for Q-Tip's free-floating brags, yarns, and meditations; Phife, excitable and jocular, didn't come into his own until album No. 2, 1991's The Low End Theory, delivering a stunning opening verse on "Buggin' Out" that earns its own little chapter here.
Q-Tip is a consummate dandy, posing for interviews in a fedora, scarf, and modified baseball jacket/overcoat here, a shiny bomber festooned with an excess of pockets and straps there. He doesn't come off as vain, exactly, but he radiates the unmistakable pridefulness of a lead singer: He's a charming, smart, and funny raconteur who seldom allows himself to be anything other than cool. At one point, recalling an early bone of contention with Phife, he narrows his eyes as though he's about to tear up—in a flash, it's clear how much he cares for his friend—but he quickly glances downward and, with a tiny gesture, adjusts the drape of his coat just so, armoring back up.
Phife, jesterish and verbose, was Tribe's sleeper star, and he is this movie's, too. Whereas Q-Tip is smooth, magnanimous, and defiant ("I didn't single myself out to be fucking ginsu master of this shit," he says), Phife is aggrieved and vulnerable (his eyes get watery in several scenes, and he wept outright at the film's premiere). He also delivers many of the film's biggest laugh lines, as in the scene when he goes on a colorful rant, profanely refusing to play Tito Jackson to Q-Tip's Michael—"no disrespect to Tito." Phife's struggle with diabetes and 2008 scramble for a kidney donor (which ends, sweetly, when his wife is discovered to be a match) only deepens our sympathies for him, even if at times he comes off stubborn and overly sensitive in his own right.
This could all veer into Behind the Music territory, but it doesn't. Rapaport deserves credit for making a movie that's neither exploitative nor puffy, and in which we find ourselves rooting for these two friends to get over themselves and work things out—not because we'd like to fantasize that some return-to-greatness comeback album is possible (that'd be nice, but unlikely), but because their relationship is rendered so affectingly, even at its pettiest. Beats, Rhymes & Life ends on a hopeful high note, although there's little to guarantee that it's anything but temporary. But A Tribe Called Quest's body of work is permanent, and as the credits roll, so does a video clip for "Buggin' Out," in which Phife, Q-Tip, and Muhammad horse around, circa 1991, wearing fluorescent sweatshirts and plastic novelty eyeballs. It's a transmission from a bright, prelapsarian moment, and the music sounds as exhilarating today as it did back then.
Correction, July 7, 2011: A July 6 "Movies" referred to the recording artist Lonnie Smith as Lonnie Davis. (Return to the corrected sentence.)