A look at the Beastie Boys’ 25-year career should prove that this group has been all about reinventing themselves. Beginning as a New York punk outfit in the early 80s, Mike D (a.k.a. Michael Diamond), Adrock (Adam Horovitz), and MCA (Adam Yauch) dominated the rap scene with their 1986 release, “License to Ill,” an album of goofy and infectious rap sing-alongs. Their blend of Run-DMC-inspired heavy riffs and humorous lyrics made for mainstay party music. In a strong but lesser known follow-up, “Paul’s Boutique” (1989), they broke the hip-hop mold wide open. Full of inventive turns, like the rap/hardcore chant, “Looking Down the Barrel of a Gun,” and the fresh dance numbers “Hey Ladies” and “Shake Your Rump,” this album was the Beastie Boys’ “Rubber Soul.” Their use of instruments in later albums, mixed with hip-hop styles that look back to the genre’s earliest innovators while always treading new ground, made fans all the more enthusiastic. With such innovation, it’s hard to imagine their reputation not carrying into the future.
But their self-reinventions are far from deliberate. Having too much energy not to evolve, the Beastie Boys have grown from experimentation. “We take an idea, and roll the dice with it,” Michael Diamond says. “With Paul’s Boutique, we spent a lot of time sampling. Then, we decided to pick up instruments again and go that way [….] At times we come back to what’s familiar, but then we’ll reach for an idea and see what comes with it.”
Their playful experimentation showed in their music videos, which Yauch (credited as Nathanial Hörnblowér) began directing on “Paul’s Boutique.” Yauch and the boys set up a tri-camera ring within which they improvised a high-energy visual style for “Shake Your Rump.” Shifting from camera to camera to synch their switch-off lyrics just in time, the Beastie Boys found a loose cannon delivery to match their madcap dance number. Their musical and video innovations, like many bands, start with an idea, a mere suggestion, or more often an urge to try something contrary to their previous work. While many groups create new material thus, the Beastie Boys’ creative genius has worked such inspiration into a transformation of style.
Then it’s no surprise that the group would offer a fresh take on the concert film. A posting on the Beastie Boys message board in mid-2004 inspired Yauch: it was a 30-second video clip from a camera phone of the three group members taking the stage. Moved by the rawness of the footage, with low resolution and fragmented pixels, and the verity it brought to the band’s stage entrance, the group devised a plan to hand out 50 hi-8 cameras to 50 fans and have them document an October 2004 show. The instructions were simple: “Start it when the Beastie Boys hit the stage and don’t stop until it’s over.” The group wanted to capture every perspective of the venue to fully realize their concert on film, entitled “Awesome: I Fuckin’ Shot That!” and opening in limited markets on March 31st. In extreme panorama – even including restroom stops and a fan sneaking backstage – and energy to suit its title, “Awesome” reinvents the experience of watching concert footage.
While the backstory about Yauch’s discovery on the web is already legendary among fans, Diamond recalls an earlier inspiration. “We were at [Madison Square] Garden on the “Ill Communication” tour in ’95. It was one of the most wild and out-of-control shows ever, as out of control you can be without anybody getting hurt. And we thought, man, it would have been great to document that.” Diamond emphasized the Beastie Boys’ ties to the city. “It was about our being from New York, and the crowd responding to us being from there.” Diamond notes that the band never gave a second thought to doing a concert film until the 1995 Madison Square Garden show, and that the audience itself drew the Beastie Boys towards their crowd-emphasized celebration of their performance.
In the final result, the group performs with enough energy for an ecstatic hometown arena. The film’s rhythm rides right along with the Beastie Boys’ lyrical beats. The rawness and content may limit its audience, but it’s nonetheless a well-built magic window into the Beastie Boys’ stage presence.
Diamond summed up the film’s production beyond the performance with a laugh: “three days of preproduction, one year of editing.” While excitement brought the project right up to the performance, the grueling post-year made the project. If traditional filmmakers have five or six choices to present content, “Awesome” left ten times as many options to consider. Yauch, again directing as Hörnblowér, took a pragmatic approach: “There were three editors, and each made a cut,” Diamond noted. The three editors worked off a different group of the cameras, which included several professional ones onstage along with the 50 hi-8s in the crowd. The post-production team then synched a high-quality sound mix with the three versions, which became the basis for the final print. After Yauch and chief editor Neal Usatin reviewed it, Usatin was worried that gems were missed. “He took it upon himself to review every single tape,” said Diamond. “He spent a week or two watching them at double-speed. He actually did find a couple things that made it in.” The final review brought the last of the near-7,000 edits in the film.
Though Yauch proudly served as the Beastie Boys’ auteur, Monsieur Hörnblowér, influence outside of the group, including Usatin and producer Jon Doran, has been important in making this film. Friends often directed their videos; Spike Jones (“Being John Malkovich,” “Adaptation”), who directed the fan-favorite video for “Sabatoge,” had previously done still photography for the Beastie Boys. His influence fit right in with their style. “We experimented together,” Diamond said. “When he began directing videos, we began making them too.” While experience has secured Yauch’s place at the helm, Diamond deadpans, “Hörnblowér’s a very unpredictable man. He could show up on the set unfocused, but then come back really visionary. You don’t know which Hörnblowér you’re going to get – my guess is the man’s a bit bipolar.”
“Awesome’s” drastic innovation has left some critics questioning the group’s intention. But Diamond argues that it was all about capturing the show for the fans, by the fans, and that they had no concern with making the ultimate concert movie. “If anything, it’s more of an anti-concert movie,” Diamond said. He boasts the film’s avoidance of the genre’s clichés, and its destruction of the usual stagnating rhythm of “here’s the crane shot, then the audience reaction shot – now here’s the band up onstage in their ‘intimate’ moment, and now, the backstage banter. We forgot all that,” Diamond said.
Though it creators describe it as just a fun experiment, “Awesome’s” kaleidoscopic treatment may encourage audiences to refuse the traditional concert movie format from now on.
The author would like to thank Michael Ferraro for his assistance in setting up an interview with Mr. Diamond.