POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 14, 2011:
Beats and Nim are real life stories of intrigue and compassion
Back in the early 90's I was ignoring hip-hop and rap in lieu of the grunge outbreak and wading through the lower depths of experimental metal. Insomuch as I did notice, it was the more hardcore and controversial acts that grabbed my attention; Too Short, 2Live Crew, NWA and Cypress Hill amongst them.
In a form of musical segregation, the eventual melding of rap and metal was anathema to me. Looking back on it Run DMC teaming up with Aerosmith for their catchy cover of "Walk This Way" was a herald for Anthrax getting together with NWA for "Bring Tha Noize", which in turn altered metal forever.
And, sure, I'd heard of A Tribe Called Quest. I just never actually noticed them. They weren't playing in that sandbox. It would take another 20 years and the release of actor/director/A Tribe Called Quest-fanatic Michael Rapaport's rich and rewarding documentary Beats, Rhymes and Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest for that to happen.
Acting as a chronicle of the blossoming of the New York hip-hop scene, as well as the history of one of its most successful acts, Beats energetically introduces the players. Opening during the hugely successful band's 2008 reunion tour -- one that finds two of its founders Q-Tip (nee Kamaal Fareed) and Phife Dawg (nee Malik Taylor) typically at odds -- Rapaport takes us back to the beginning; as they and the other founding members of the group, DJ Ali Shaheed Muhammad and Jarobi White tell the story of their formation on the streets of Queens.
Beats is rich with details, personalities and the uniqueness of its place in time, mapping the sonic neural pathways that formed from local legends like DJ Red Alert, giving rise to A Tribe Called Quest, The Jungle Brothers and De La Soul and the eventual formation of Native Tongues -- a sort of super group collective of those three bands who cemented their position in the New York hip hop scene with their distinct use of bass-heavy loops and vintage jazz samples.
With the release of 1991's The Low End Theory, the band's second disc, A Tribe Called Quest put themselves on the map with great salesk, in the position to influence a generation of listeners and up and coming artists; though even then the tensions between Q-Tip and Phife were beginning the strain their relationship. The band eventually broke up in 1998 after the release of their third disc for Jive Records, The Love Movement.
Directed by Rapaport with wonderful immediacy and a genuine love of the subject, Beats, Rhymes and Life is nothing short of captivating. Cutting between the recollections of the bands history and influence with interviews with A Tribe Called Quest's adherents, Pharrell, Mos Def, The Beastie Boys and Common among others, Rapaport crafts a tightly paced, detailed and satisfying chronicle. Utilizing the bands signature songs, "Bonita Applbaum", "Check the Rhime" and "Jazz (We Got)" with stylish animated interstitials, Beats looks and sounds great.
Structurally, Beats is no Behind the Music exposé, assiduously avoiding the exploitive qualities that a less respectful director might attempt to mine -- opting instead for the human stories, the relationship dynamics and the influence of a band's music that Rapaport clearly loves. It would have been easy to lean on the strife between Q-Tip and Phife, or to make hay out of the divisions and rivalries of the scene. Instead, Rapaport tells the story from the prospective of a fan.
And it's telling that after being broken up for a decade, A Tribe Called Quest still commands respect and demand -- an alternative aficionado might feel the same way about the reformation of The Pixies, analogous right down to their ability to successfully tour without releasing new material or the sometimes contentious relationship between Frank Black and Kim Deal.
While reunions in 2006 and 2008 (and the existence of this film) prove that interest in A Tribe Called Quest has waned little, the lack of a new album has to leave fans with the feeling they are witnessing a reenactment and not the making of history itself.
Beats hopefully notes that A Tribe Called Quest still has one album left to fulfill its original contract. As a dismissive neophyte to the importance of the group, its era and the quality of their work, Beats, Rhymes and Life's success is measured in the fact that even this metalhead wants to hear to it.
Rapaport created a fan.
The '70s Were a Weird Time
The sexual revolution born out of the free-love movement scattered gender mores to the wind. Vietnam disaffected a generation brought up to believe that war was only just when necessary. And Noam Chomsky got into an inadvertent dick fight with a Columbia researcher named Herbert Terrace over whether or not chimps could be trained to understand and use language as humans do.
The BBC/HBO co-production Project Nim documents the strange, Sisyphean experiment on a young chimpanzee named Nim Chimpsky. Taken from his mother's arms at birth from an Oklahoma primate research facility, Nim is placed with a family of quasi-hippie academics, Wer and Stephanie LaFarge (Wer is a poet while Stephanie is a researcher). Stephanie had been selected by Columbia University Professor Herbert Terrace to raise Nim as if he were a human -- she follows through in stunning fashion, going so far as to breast feed -- and attempt to raise a cognitive animal that can communicate with humans.
Stephanie LaFarge soon leaves Wer behind to pursue research with Nim under the tutelage, both academic and sexual, of Herb Terrace who eventually moves the whole operation to an upstate New York mansion and hit upon the idea of teaching Nim American Sign Language (ASL). One by one Nim learns different signs and amazingly retains them, seemingly able to communicate his desires and thoughts to his human friends. Who proceed to get him stoned.
It's tempting to want to bridge the divide of animal and human sentience. Who hasn't looked at an ape, seen the soul in their eyes and wondered how they perceive the world? If Gorillas in the Mist taught us anything it's that they are so like us. Except that they aren't us.
What Noam Chomsky argued, that humans are the only species that can use language, and the bizarre, sometimes heart-breaking "experiment" Terrace thought up to refute it, are the joy and tragedy of Project Nim.
From the moment Nim is pulled from his distraught mothers arms he becomes the pawn of the misguided Terrace, who applies no real methodology to his experiments. After five years of unscientific method, he realizes his folly. While Nim learns up to 125 signs, there's never any indication that Nim uses them to form actual sentences. For his efforts, Nim is unceremoniously shipped back to Oklahoma by the hammy Terrace, sending him into a spiral of depression.
Conversely, Nim was clearly enriched by his human handlers, particularly researcher Bob Ingersoll (doubling as Nim's stoner buddy) who is equally enamored of his simian friend. The idyllic nature of their surroundings and the tactile nature of their relationship lend themselves to a more connected way of living between two species. While Nim was robbed of a natural existence in the wild and amongst his kind, Nim's relationship with Ingersoll -- and many of his peers -- takes on a uniqueness that nearly justifies his captivity.
Directed James Marsh (Man on a Wire) Project Nim is culled from copious archival footage, stills and new interviews with the scientists who knew him best. Marsh directs the proceedings sharply, with a clean visual design to contrast the 40 year old, 8mm footage and photos shot by Terrace and his team, crafting a compelling story that sparks the imagination as much as it tugs the heart-strings.
Touching, weird, sad and funny are all signs that Project Nim is a wonderfully made document; one that says as much about human nature as it does animal logic.
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