Nearly two decades after making his film debut at Sundance in the indie drama Zebrahead — and returning subsequently in countless indie films — actor Michael Rapaport is back in Park City with his first effort as a documentary film director.
In “Beats, Rhymes & Life” (which premiered Saturday, Jan. 22, at the Temple Theater as part of the U.S. documentary competition), the Bronx-born helmer chronicles the public and private dramas of the hip-group group A Tribe Called Quest. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, Rapaport comes clean about the pain of realizing his passion project, what he remembers about his first Sundance and the “bloodbath” that is independent filmmaking.
The Hollywood Reporter: How did Beats, Rhymes & Life come about?
Michael Rapaport: I’ve been a huge fan of A Tribe Called Quest since they started. In 2006 they performed at the Wiltern Theater in L.A. and I went backstage and said to somebody “I want to do a documentary about these guys.” Two years later, they were the headliners of the Rock the Bells tour, so I approached them about doing it and they gave me the green light.
Why is Tribe a good documentary subject?
Well, first, there’s never been a formal, proper independently-made documentary about a hip-hop group. They were one of the first acts to seamlessly use elements of jazz — taking the records that were in their parents’ record collection and putting them in hip-hop. There was a consciousness without being overbearing and fun and innocence, at the same time Public Enemy was out. Tribe’s music had inclusiveness. It was definitely soulful, black music, but it was for everybody.
You’ve said this process caused you a lot of anxiety. What was the scariest part?
[Laughs] When I had the green light and all the elements were laid out I thought, “Oh sh*t I have to really make this happen.” I have such respect for Tribe and so do the fans. I really didn’t want to f**k this up.
Were there specific music documentaries you turned to for inspiration?
Absolutely. “Gimme Shelter.” The documentary, Jimi Hendrix. The concert footage in “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party” was amazing. [“Anvil! The Story of Anvil”] was one I liked and Wilco’s “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.”
I personally financed this movie out of my own pocket, so the only people I had to pitch was the group. I approached Q-Tip first because I knew him.
Last December Q-Tip went public with his concerns about the film. What was he most worried about?
It’s hard for me to say. He cares a lot about the film and I know he cares a lot about the legacy of Tribe. I think it kind of became a reality like, “Oh sh*t this is coming out.” But we’ve gotten passed that. They do have a lot of opinions though, trust me. My big question to answer as a director was: Will a Tribe Called Quest make more music? That was sort of my mission statement throughout the film.
Are you able to answer that question in the movie?
Yeah, we are able to answer it. You got to see it though. I got to leave some cliffhangers.
You’ve had a long relationship with Sundance. How does it feel to be back here in your film-directing debut?
The first time I ever saw myself in a movie was at the premiere screening of “Zebrahead” in 1992 at Sundance. It changed the course of my life. So to be here as a director 19 years later is truly an honor. My personal goal for Beats was we had to premiere at Sundance. I have a very sentimental connection to the festival.
What do you remember about your first Sundance?
I met Quentin Tarantino at the “Reservoir Dogs” premiere. I was also at a midnight screening of “Kids,” sitting right in front of Harvey Weinstein. It was a big year for independent film. Sitting in the movie theater and listening to all these filmmakers talk about how they were paying for things with their credit card, “I made this movie for $7,000” and “I quit my job for this movie” or “I mortgaged my house to make this movie.” That was the way to me that you had to get a movie made. You had to sacrifice personal things. You had to fight. You had to believe. It had to be a f**king war to get a movie made, and to me that is what Sundance is all about.
And almost two decades later, it’s just as bloody a war.
I think it’s even gotten harder now. Who the f**k is going to buy one of these rinky-dink little movies? If you are going to make a passion project, it’s going to be a bloodbath. There is no way around it.
Do you have any advice for young talent debuting at the festival this year?
I would say enjoy it, write in your diary about it, be proud of it and soak up all the hoopla. I will never forget the first time that someone recognized me on the street was at Sundance. Now when people are like, “Isn’t that annoying?” I’m like, “Hell no!” After doing this as long as I have, if no one recognized me, I’d be f**ked.