Michael Rapaport was probably on his way to making a so-so music documentary about a reunion tour when bad fortune fell in his lap.
The hip-hop group he was following, A Tribe Called Quest, blew up and disbanded. Rapaport caught the 2008 breakup on camera, instantly giving his enterprise some notoriety and superficial tabloid appeal.
Rapaport, to his great credit, went much deeper. He conducted a forensic investigation of the history of Tribe and its implosion, one that becomes a surprisingly concise and eloquent look at hip-hop itself, abetted by analytical contributions from some of the genre's most popular artists.
The result is "Beats Rhymes & Life," a documentary that starts with the Tribe breakup and shows it in reverse, going back to the group's Queens, N.Y., origins, which coincide with hip-hop's formative/glory years.
Creative force Q-Tip and friends Phife Dawg, Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White make mixed tapes, get radio play, sign a record deal and become an instant sensation (a classic piece of garage-band Americana, with a hip-hop spin).
Q-Tip's sampling of jazz riffs (culled from his parents' record collection) gave Tribe a unique sound, and its fashion style (Kente cloth!) gave it a stand-alone, laid-back brand that set Tribe apart from Public Enemy, NWA, etc.
The group released three seminal albums - ("People's Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm," "Low End Theory," "Midnight Marauders") - that transformed and expanded the genre. Hip-hop luminaries (including ?uestlove of The Roots) describe Tribe and its music as the pinnacle of hip-hop's Golden Age, alongside the Wu-Tang Clan and its 1993 "36 Chambers" record.
The band's meteoric rise was supplemented by the emergence of Phife as a comic, ribald wild card and complement to Q-Tip's musicality, giving Tribe a second stage booster rocket that most groups don't have.
His emergence on "Low End Theory" made the group a quadruple-platinum-seller, but it also, Rapaport implies, planted the seeds of dissension. We see the familiar tension between a creative/perfectionistic/controlling force, Q-Tip, and the sideman who starts getting equal attention.
One of the movie's charms is the way the Tribe narrative arc has such classic music-biz dimensions. The dynamic between Q-Tip and Phife is as old as Lennon and McCartney, probably as old as Tin Pan Alley.
"Beats Rhymes & Life" embellishes the drama with real-time footage that encompasses the breakup and reconciliation, given added punch by Phife's struggle with kidney disease and its effect on the bonds among the Tribe members.
It's a rare peek behind the macho curtain of hip-hop, and an informative history of the genre itself.