Although it was an evening celebrating the life of Adam Yauch and the 10th anniversary of the film company he founded Oscilloscope Laboratories at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, Adam Horovitz (a.k.a. Ad-Rock), his longtime friend and collaborator in the Beastie Boys, relayed an anecdote from their musical partnership that may best illuminate how the man also known as MCA fearlessly jumped into the movie business with both feet, financing the distributor out of his own pocket, by discussing how he drove the revolutionary rap act’s growing interest in the instrumental side of their music.
“Of course, we don’t know how to play our instruments, but [Adam said], ‘Let’s just play jazz music. Why not?,” Horovitz laughed incredulously. “And he bought an upright acoustic bass, which is really fucking hard to play and just could do it instinctively. We just followed that lead.”
“He was very into snowboarding [and] he left the studio one time to go snowboard in Alaska, jumping off of helicopters,” added Mike Diamond, better known to Beastie fans as Mike D. “And he brought this huge, upright bass with him. People barely bring an iPhone with them to places to listen to music – he brought an upright bass!”
“When we were kids, he would propel us all to do,” said Horovitz. “Everybody has ideas like, ‘We should do this thing…’ but [Adam] would do them and you’d just fall in line and it would be fun.”
While it was naturally bittersweet that Horovitz and Diamond could only speak about their brother-in-arms in the past tense, given Yauch’s untimely passing in 2012, it was undeniable that he continues to stir up fun in his wake, if one were to go by the raucous audience that gathered to honor him at the Egyptian. The evening served as the kick-off to a festive weekend at the American Cinematheque featuring Oscilloscope’s diverse releases over the years, boasting a double feature of Kelly Reichardt’s “Wendy and Lucy” and “Meek’s Cutoff” in addition to films showcasing all the filmmakers they’ve introduced to audiences over the years from Hannah Fidell’s “A Teacher,” Joel Potrykus’ “Buzzard,” Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits,” Lotfy Nathan’s “12 O’Clock Boys” and Sophia Takal’s “Always Shine” – and just one of many events celebrating Oscilloscope occurring across the country in the weeks and months ahead, with retrospectives commencing as we speak at the State Theatre in Ann Arbor, the Marchesa in Austin, the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, the Little Theatre in Rochester, the SIFF Cinema in Seattle, the Roxie Theatre in San Francisco, and the Alamo Drafthouse in Yonkers, with screenings to come at the BAMCinematek in Brooklyn, the Brattle Theatre in Boston, the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, NY, and the Sie Film Center in Denver where 25 of the distributor’s films will be shown.
Yet what happened in Los Angeles was particularly special, as the Egyptian turned over their outdoor poster space to a collage of rare Beasties paraphernalia put together by Pat Lowery and the conversation with Horovitz, Diamond and many special guests to programmer William Morris, who showed up in a lab coat and stoked the crowd by saying the evening’s screening of the concert film “Awesome! I Fuckin’ Shot That,” coupled with a pair of music videos/shorts directed by Yauch (“Fight for Your Right (Revisited)” and “Shadrach”) would be played “as fucking loud as we can and as big as we can – as God intended and MCA deserves.”
“Awesome! I Fuckin’ Shot That” may have been an obvious choice to anchor the retrospective in Los Angeles as the very first Oscilloscope production, but in hindsight, what’s surprising is how appropriate an introduction the film is for the distributor that Yauch started from scratch since it put DV and Hi-8 cameras in the hands of 50 fans in the audience to capture the band’s final 2004 Madison Square Garden show. Yauch wouldn’t launch Oscilloscope as a proper distributor until four years later, teaming with David Fenkel and Dan Berger, who helped distribute “Awesome” as part of ThinkFilm, yet the film spoke metaphorically to the company’s ambitions — to bring a diversity of experience to the big screen in personal yet electrifying fashion. Once rolling, Oscilloscope essentially brought in different perspectives from around the world, championing such distinctive films as Banksy’s “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” Evan Glodell’s “Bellflower,” Oren Moverman’s “The Messenger,” Sebastian Silva’s “The Maid” and Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” And Yauch no doubt would be pleased that Oscilloscope has grown even more eclectic as a distributor since his passing, under the purview of his widow Dechen Wangdu and the direction of Berger — following the departure of Fenkel, who would go on to co-found A24 — becoming the U.S. home for films such as Anna Muylaert’s “The Second Mother,” Andrew Dosunmu’s “Mother of George” and Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch,” not to mention the best distributor of concert films around, creating event screenings around the likes of “May It Last: A Portrait of the Avett Brothers” and LCD Soundsystem’s “Shut Up and Play the Hits.”
“It didn’t matter if it was documentary or scripted or whatever,” recalled Diamond. “It was really one of those things where if [Adam] liked it and thought there was value and it needed to go out into the world, they’d figure out a way to make it work. And they did.”
Horovitz chalked up Yauch’s love of film from his general curiosity about life, reminiscing about how Yauch would often break up a recording session when something outside would catch his interest.
“It would be snowing in New York and it’d be like “Oh, I got a camera. Let’s go make a video,” said Horovitz. “We made tons of videos just on that. ‘Oh, I’ve got this one idea. And he and his editor Neal Usatin, who’s fantastic, would just make these things and we would follow them.”
It came as a given that the group who could freestyle so well on stage would take the same tact when it came to the videos they made, with Diamond describing how their Kaiju-heavy clip for “Intergalactic” grew out of their frequent travel to Japan at the time and that their iconic video for “Sabotage” came about from the aftermath of a Spike Jonze photo shoot in which the trio were unwinding at Yauch’s apartment by throwing in a tape of “Streets of San Francisco” reruns. However, Yauch, who rechristened himself as Nathaniel Hornblower when behind the camera, dedicated himself to pushing himself as a filmmaker with every opportunity, as exemplified as early as 1989 with the handpainted video for “Shadrach,” produced by the “Rugrats” animation studio Klasky/Csupo.
“Adam’s father was into painting and [Adam] was really enamored of this big coffee table book he had of LeRoy Neiman,” said Chris Casady, the music video’s animation director who was joined by art director Audri Phillips and painter Marlon West onstage. “[Neiman] paints with very bright, saturated primary colors, [and] with a knife instead of a brush, so that the painting had a real textural feeling called Impasto and [Adam] said, “I wonder if we could do a video that looked like these paintings.’”
For “Shadrach,” Yauch convened a live Beastie Boys performance of the song at a club in Reseda to film on black-and-white film stock and hired a talented young pair of directors on the rise — Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris — to set up 16 lipstick cameras around the place to capture the action. The film was transferred to three-quarter cassette that animators would then paint over with acrylics.
“Adam was there to champion the cause because when we were taking it to video, they were making it very brightly colored and almost cartoon-like and people were getting so excited about what they could do with color correction,” said Phillips. “And Adam stood up and said, ‘No, this is not what I want. I want these to look like paintings.”
However, Yauch was someone that you wanted to do everything you could to please, said Seth Rogen, who was also onhand at the Egyptian along with his “Fight for Your Right (Revisited)” co-stars Martin Starr, John C. Reilly and Elijah Wood. In taking on a starring role playing Mike D in the extended music video, which pitted the old school Beastie Boys (replicated by himself, Wood and Danny McBride) against their future selves (played by Reilly, Will Ferrell and Jack Black), Rogen recalled warning the many famous actors that made cameo appearances to brace themselves as they got to the set since the more he and others could make Yauch laugh, the crazier things would get.
“We almost killed Ted Danson,” Rogen practically squealed, remembering how a fight over a bottle of champagne during a scene set in a restaurant got wilder and wilder. “I just remember seeing a guy [in Adam] who was doing what he thought was the funniest thing he’d ever seen in his entire life at that moment and to be able, even though I didn’t get it all the time, to in any way facilitate bringing that to life for him was a real gift — to be able to make him laugh, it was one of the best things I’ve ever gotten to do in my life.”
For all involved in the “Fight for Your Right (Revisited)” shoot, the chance to be around Yauch was a dream. The video had come about after Yauch was diagnosed with salivary cancer, which precluded getting in front of the camera (though he shows up at the last minute in the 29-minute short along with Mike D and Ad-Rock). But MCA kept busy, building a short around the single “Make Some Noise” from the band’s eighth album “Hot Sauce Committee Part II.” While he would eagerly tell potential collaborators of the short’s plot to woo them into coming aboard the project, Wood felt he may have been speaking for most when saying it didn’t take much convincing.
“[Adam] explained the concept of the video and walked me through it and I thought this is really great, this is really funny,” said Wood. “And then [Adam said,] ‘There’s this thing that happens at the end where it turns into a pissing match, but it’s not…it’s more like a water gun fight, but with urine. And I was like, ‘That sounds hilarious.’ And he’s like, ‘You should read the treatment.’ And I was like, ‘I don’t really think I need to. I think I’m in.’”
Laughed Rogen, “I remember [the script] said, ‘Just when you think they can’t piss in each other’s faces more, they keep pissing in each other’s faces.’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s right up my alley.’”
Starr, who had the privilege of appearing onscreen with the real Beastie Boys in the short, playing the cop who lets them out of a paddy wagon at the end, recalled showing up just as the pissing match ended, describing it as “an incredible introduction to the video experience as a whole.”
“What stood out to me most was how big a heart Adam had because I was such a huge fan of the Beastie Boys for so long [that] to be able to meet the three of them and really feel connected to something that had been such a big part of my life and how open and loving and caring and paternal he was from the very beginning was an amazing experience,” said Starr.
“We’re all such smart asses up here,” said Reilly, who noted earlier in the evening his first encounter with the Beastie Boys was buying a bootleg cassette of “License to Ill” while shooting “Casualties of War” in Thailand for just 35 cents. “But the reason we’re here is to celebrate Adam Yauch and I want to say as a man of a certain persuasion who cares about the world and really cares about people as a humanist, Adam really put his money where his mouth was and he changed the world just by being who he was…I always felt like Adam saw your spirit or something. It was always a little bit intense being with him for me.”
Added Wood, “It was so palpable on set for the few days that we were there that everyone that was there felt as happy and as excited for the tiny part that they got to play in service of these guys and Yauch’s vision. We would get up in the morning and be the Beastie Boys for the day, living out a fucking fantasy, and a take would end and I remember distinctly, the one note [Adam] would give was, “Good shit.” Just “good shit.” He was just so pumped. And I concur with John [that] it was intense being around him in that his humanity was so intense and so beautiful and so pure that it felt like a window into yours as well. It was just an honor to get to know him for that period of time and it was an incredibly beautiful, emotional experience.”