The Beastie Boys are still the only group to have their music videos receive a Criterion Collection release, having delivered a steady stream of hilarious and fun promo spots since “She’s on It” in 1985. As the documentary Beastie Boys Story recently dropped on AppleTV, the remaining B-Boys and their record label remastered 36 of their videos, now re-uploaded to YouTube in HD. And now’s as good a time as any to restock and rethink their impact on the art form of music video.
The first videos are silly, cartoonish slapstick, with a fratboy sense of humor that played better then than now, especially with several references to faux-aphrodesiac Spanish Fly. But the sped up action and costume changes placed them in a lineage usually associated with British acts like The Beatles and Madness.
The Beasties always poked fun at themselves, which other American acts rarely did, especially in the very macho worlds of hip-hop and metal. Even in their final videos they were slapping on wigs and fake mustaches.
But if the Beastie Boys really had one main legacy it was the use of the fish-eye lens. Used first in the “Hold It Now Hit It” video (an afternoon’s filming intercut with shots from their Dionysian first world tour), it would return for 1989’s “Shake Your Rump“, where the group have learned exactly how to work its distorting powers (MCA’s fingers feel like they’re going to reach through the screen). This style reaches its apex in “So What’cha Want” where the distortion is matched with a slowed motion (the band miming to a sped up version, then the video slowed to the correct speed). The music’s THC-laced grind is matched with decayed visuals. Rap videos ever since have used the immediacy of the direct-to-camera performance, and directors like Hype Williams made a career of turning a fisheye lens onto performers like Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliot, with even more surreal results.
But the Beastie Boys really flourished when they teamed up with director Spike Jonze, who directed the Beastie Boys Story and would direct six of their videos. A rising photographer and director connected with the skateboarding scene, his first collaboration with the group was 1992’s “Time for Living,” a punk rock non-single from Check Your Head. But things really took off with “Sabotage,” one of the band’s best videos, a parody of 1970s cop shows. Watching the Beasties and their friends play dress-up, run rampant through the streets of Los Angeles, jump across rooftops, and toss a dummy off a bridge is like the platonic ideal of a home movie made with your best friends. Absolutely silly and hilarious, but life-affirming at the same time, a distillation of what made the band great.
You probably have your own favorites too, as there’s so many: the Godzilla tribute of “Intergalactic,” the parody of Diabolik for “Body Movin’“, the psychedelic paint explosion of “Shadrach,” the homage to Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii with “Gratitude“, the celebrity lovefest of “Make Some Noise“, and the years-before-their-time ‘70s disco-and-polyester indulgence of “Hey Ladies” where Jean Cocteau and Dolemite share a cokespoon-ful of influences.
The playlist also features a number of non-album tracks done for the hell of it, some real rarities even for the fan. Good God y’all.
Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.