BEASTIE BOYS STORY Interview: Spike Jonze and Beastie Boys Ad-Rock, Mike D Talk the Movie and Their Lives
When first learning of the existence of a Beastie Boys story brought to us by Spike Jonze, their most prolific music video director, next to MCA’s Swiss filmmaker uncle, Nathanial Hörnblowér, there was little expectation it would look much like the indecipherably similar rockumentaries that are getting churned out en-masse nowadays.
As it turns out, Beastie Boys Story is a charming, retrospective speech-style stage show MC’d by Beasties, Ad-Rock and Mike D, told with humor, spontaneity, and a damn interesting life’s worth of anecdotes, hard-earned lessons, and appropriately sentimental reminiscences.
Speaking to Beastie Boys, Adam 'Ad-Rock' Horovitz and Michael 'Mike D' Diamond, along with frequent collaborator, director Spike Jonze, via a quarantine Zoom interview, the gang discussed the origins of the stage show that become the feature film, now available to stream on AppleTV.
Mike D: It evolved over time. We had the book that Adam and I had written, called Beastie Boys Book. At the outset of this thing, when Adam and I first were spending a lot of time working on the book, I read a couple of music books and it seemed like they pretty much all have this very similar formula - 'I was walking down the street and then one day I met this kid and this happened and that happened. And then Oh my God, everything was great! And then we hate each other and fuck those guys.'
Spike: (Laughing) That was the plot of every music book you read?
Mike D: That was pretty much every music book, I'm telling you, it's like 'all this incredible stuff happened and Oh my God, and then...' Anyway, so with the book, we didn't want to do something like anybody else had done and we also felt with Yauch, and as a band, what we've always done is trying to do something different.
Then when the Beastie Boys Book was coming out, we were basically faced with the idea 'what are we supposed to do now? We're supposed to go out and do some book readings and feel kind of lame that we're in a bookstore doing a book reading. And we just thought, 'No, what can we do that's different?', and then we were talking with Spike about it and we're like, 'All right, well let's put together a show that works in two hours and has a little bit of a story arc.'
So we, along with Spike, came up with this idea of doing more of a performance. And I think maybe the first iteration, it was almost like we were trying to tell our story, our time, to give a sense of the arc of time that the story takes place. But it was tricky, to be honest. I think the hardest thing is that the book is 500 something pages and we didn't expect people to sit in their seats to deal with us for much more than two hours.
Ad-Rock: (The show) was between three and four hours long. It was long and so things had to be edited out. And even in the original script that me and Mike and Spike wrote, there were some changes and Spike, he's the filmmaker, he wanted to change things up.
Mike D: So anyway we started with that first iteration of shows and Adam and I got together and started to write that. And then Spike along with Amanda would be at the run throughs and we'd rewrite things and then we did those shows in New York, Brooklyn, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, wherever. Toured it around a little bit. And of course then we got to the end of that and we were like, "Hmm." It seemed to actually go well and it was new for us, and it was different.
We didn't know what was going to happen and we were literally figuring it out on stage. And then we were like, "Hmm, I guess we really should've filmed that." So, then we took a little break and then we got back together with Spike and Amanda and everyone and started to rewrite the show with the idea of filming it and getting more of the story.
Ad-Rock: Then it wasn't until, really literally as we then were going back into the theater with it, that these different gags would happen from night to night. We would try one thing and it wouldn't work or Spike chiming in or the whole 'craaaaaazy shit' idea was you had this thing that was supposed to happen a certain way, but we basically only got it to a certain point.
So that's I think how we as a band have always worked, and how we've always worked with Spike is just all of us getting together and just a lot of ideas coming up and sort of implementing them on the fly. If that makes sense.
Mike D: We threw as many different chairs and umbrellas and photos and records and doves up in there. And then we just saw how many we could catch.
Ad-Rock: Doves? Really?
Mike D: Yeah. Doves.
Spike: The thing was, as Adam said, the play was three and a half hours long. But as we were shooting it, as we were writing it and putting it together, we put it together without really having enough time to rehearse it. So the first show we had in Philadelphia was really our second time we'd run through the whole thing.
So we knew they were going to be a little long and sloppy and messy and that was going to be part of the fun live. And then we thought every night we'd do the show differently because Adam and Mike are consummate professionals and would just give me magic every night to work with.
Mike D: Golden gold?
Spike: Golden gold. And so then every night was different and we just let it be different and knowing we could just take the best stuff and then cut it down and there's a lot of stuff we cut out that was great.
We did this incredible opening sequence where Adam tells a story about Yauch pulling this prank on him that took 15 years. It was a great example of Yauch's dedication to an idea, but then when we came down to editing, we realized let's do the best version of (the collective) band and it evolved from that... And then Adam and I wrestled for a while.
As Beastie Boys fans know well, and new viewers will come to understand upon watching Beastie Boys Story, one of the essential driving forces of the band, Adam 'MCA' Yauch, is no longer with us to tell his third of the tale. Yauch passed tragically in 2012 after a battle with cancer, leaving behind a devastated mass of appreciators, who not only saw in him one fly ass MC, but a five star human being, who after an early bout of juvenile delinquency, dedicated his life to positivity, creativity, and social responsibility, using his privileged position in pop culture in the name of causes such as the Tibetan Freedom Concert.
My first and last Beastie Boys concert at Bonnaroo 2009, turned out to be the last one for the band as well, after an infectious career as wild-style musicians and a smile-inducing friendship that proved time and again the power of comradery, passion, and creative synergy. Once Yauch left us too soon, they felt there was no point in continuing. All the remaining Boys could do was live to tell the tale.
Ad-Rock: When we were writing the book, we were trying to figure out how Yauch could be in there, but we didn't want to just use quotes because for some reason reading quotes just seemed weird. There's something very different about actually seeing somebody talking and so I will let Spike take it from there because Spike was responsible for a lot of the documentary footage.
Spike: Well actually our editors, Jeff and Zooey, they went through, I don't know, hundreds and hundreds of hours of footage and as we were editing we just kept getting more and more footage and so we got all these raw, unedited tapes from MTV of 20 years of Beastie Boys archive stuff.
Most of the interviews are the three of them together, and a lot of times it's hard to get a straight answer from them. I don't know if you've noticed that, but I find them very, very difficult. So anyway, this one interview - there was only one, maybe two interviews where it was them separate - it was very exciting when we found that footage because we didn't know it existed.
With hundreds of hours of footage to work with, thoroughly tracking the band's cultural rise and personal growth, the film manages to touch on themes of overnight celebrity in the decade of excess and the process of navigating away from the Dionysian American dream that sometimes - often randomly - becomes available to the young and fabulous.
The Boys have grown up exponentially since their fun-loving bro-down of an entrance into the early world of hip-hop, when their satiric party anthem, Fight For Your Right to Party, was taken so literally, it made unironic dicks out of the young overnight international superstars. Those years make for fun tabloid entertainment with a mostly-sweet soundtrack, but what's really interesting and ultimately rewarding is what happened next.
Coming through the other end of the fires of 80s excess, the three young men would lean into the real value of their friendship, their far more interesting priorities as a band, and their functions as human beings. The creative results proved far more fruitful and historically resonant. As a life in the public eye documents, the Beastie Boys of the late 90s were not the same band as the one from a decade prior. In one interview, when asked how a new song with feminist lyrics should be taken, from the author of You Gotta Fight For Your Right To Party, Ad-Rock responded, "I’d rather be a hypocrite than the same person I was ten years ago."
Mike D: In writing "Fight for Your Right to Party," it was like literally we're in my apartment in the West Village in New York City. And so we don't have any bro dudes in our social circle. So it seemed like a really funny thing to make fun of. And we definitely didn't have this vision of like 'We're going to make it big'. It was just like, 'Oh. This is awesome. We get to make our record and fuck around and do what we want to do.'
And so it was 'Hey why not, we'll do this song that's like a goof.' Making fun of these burly guys that we don't really know. And then we go on tour and then those dudes are in the front row and it's a kind of thing where you kind of go with it for a little bit because you feel good. Like you're getting applauded for doing this thing. And like, 'okay', you go there and then after a bit you're like, 'Whoa, wait a second'.
The world we came from in New York City was so not that world and we missed it and we missed who we were in that world. I think we got fortunate in a sense that because we had this whole falling out with Def Jam and everything and it brought it back to being about the three of us. So we got to really take a break and look at each other, the three of us, and be like, 'Okay, what do we want to do?'
Ad Rock: I'm trying to think of this analogy of if you get the extra large bag of Frito chips and you start eating them, you're like, 'Whoa, these taste really good'. And then you're like, 'Wow, they're really salty and they're making me feel bad'. Then you just keep eating them and eating them and eating them. And then when you're done with the bag, you're like, 'Wow, I'm never going to eat another fucking Frito again. I'm done eating fucking Fritos.' Yeah, I know it's different, but...
Spike: No, it's a poignant metaphor.
Mike D: Being a father of teenagers, I don't know how I first explained it, but I actually think it's great. I was really happy that they got to travel with me a bunch while we were doing these shows because this is going to happen. It's going to happen to all of us. We're all going to have these actions we're ultimately not proud of.
We're all going to have situations in our lives we could've handled better and could handle better. And so we're so grateful. Here I am with my best friends, with Adam and Spike and we get to talk about that. It was actually great. That was one of the great things about the shows. So many times around the dinner table or whatever, we got to talk about this stuff.
Ad-Rock: So basically you didn't have to have the awkward conversation with your kids. They just saw the show.
Mike D: (Laughing) Yeah, that's right. It saved me the conversation.
Ad-Rock: Not so many people have that.
Mike D: That's true. Good point.
Ad-Rock: The 'don't be an asshole' conversation.
Mike D: Yup.
With all the discussion points and life-highlights, impressively contained to 120 minutes, the story becomes about so much more than just a rehashing of the life and times of a successful zeitgeist band. With Adam ‘MCA’ Yauch, Adam ‘Ad-Rock, and Michael 'Mike D' Diamond as its protagonist, the film ends up being not just a coming of age buddy picture, but a wising up of artists and of people who went from being the object of a record producer’s opportunistic commercial whimsies, to an inspiring testimony to the limitless strength of DIY thinking, ingenuity, and integrity, not to mention the spiritual value of fun and friendship.
Extending the friendship to kindred-spirit, Spike Jonze, wild style visual cohort extraordinaire, Beastie Boys Story becomes a delightfully simple night at the theatre that tickles the unassuming live Jonathan Demme itch, where Spaulding Grey meets Storefront Hitchcock with a heady dash of the wise/ass spirit that makes the works (and especially the shared works) of both Beatsies and Jonze so much fun.
On the topic of their combined creative juices and the beginnings of this or any Spike Jonze/Beastie Boys collaboration, the gang had this tidbit with which to leave us off.
Spike: Our conversations are a lot like this one we're having right now, so it takes a long time to get anything done.
Mike D: Yeah, that's true. Yeah. We're very meandering and somewhat random in our conversations.
Ad-Rock: Every time we meet to work on something we bullshit for a whole long time. Then we order food and then we're too tired to do anything.
Mike D: Next time we get together. Ooh, we have some coffee, knock it out of the park.
Spike: (As for this project)... what was... what's it called? The hello? Hello? What was it called, Adam?
Ad-Rock: Oh, Hello?
Spike: Oh, Hello. Yeah. That was really Adam and Mike's alter egos and so we really just thought we'd try to do Oh, Hello again.