Though he wasn’t a household name, director/screenwriter Ric Menello, 60 was one of the most influential visionaries behind the emergence of commercial hip-hop in the 1980s.
The co-director of the Beastie Boys’ landmark “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (To Party)” video passed away on Friday of a heart attack, leaving behind a fascinating mix of high/low art that his friends and admirers said perfectly summed up his lifelong aesthetic.
“He was amazing and the kind of insane that we love and the kind of insane that changes the world,” said writer Dan Charnas, who spent hours interviewing Menello for his book “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip-Hop.”
In addition to his co-directing credits on music videos, Menello wrote the 2008 Joaquin Phoenix/Gwyneth Paltrow film “Two Lovers,” which, at the time, was referred to by the actor as his big screen retirement. He also wrote another Phoenix film, “Lowlife,” which is slated for release this year, as well as Run-DMC’s “Tougher Than Leather.”
Menello met the Beastie Boys and producer/Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin when he worked part time as a desk clerk at Rubin’s dorm at NYU. “Those guys would hang out at the front desk watching movies with him and as Rick started bands and the label … Menello was along for the ride,” said Charnas, who worked for Rubin at the Def American label. “But more importantly, as all this stuff is starting, Menello helps to form Rick’s aesthetic. Rick knows what he likes, but it takes Menello to help Rick understand it.”
As Rubin was launching the Beasties, he tapped Menello and his roommate, Adam Dubin, to co-direct “Fight,” which helped launch the trio into global superstardom. “Rick loved Abbott and Costello … and he would make his friends stay up to watch this old timey TV show that he had no business liking,” Charnas said of the legendary slapstick duo. “Rick liked the whole lowbrow setup of the thing, but what Menello helped Rick understand was that it was not the slapstick that Rick liked, but the combination of that lowbrow slapstick with a very highbrow sophisticated form.”
That high-low mix is what Rubin would pursue at Def Jam, no more so than on “Fight,” which mixed the song’s grunty, three-chord simplicity with a re-enactment of the beloved 1961 Audrey Hepburn romantic comedy “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”
“Menello helped explain to Rick why he liked Abbott and Costello and professional wrestling … there was nothing more lowbrow, but it was sophisticated with all the theater and costuming … and Rick took that ethos and changed the world with it,” said Charnas.
Menello and Dubin also hooked up for the Beasties’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” clip, as well as LL Cool J’s “Going Back to Cali.”
Following the death of Beastie Adam Yauch last May, MTV News spoke to Menello about the shoot for the “Fight” video.
Menello said he had no clue at the time that “Fight” would have the kind of longevity it has. “It was kind of a dumb video, but it was done in a very sophisticated way visually. I often say the style of the video is ‘stupidity done in an intelligent way,’ ” he said, summing up his signature aesthetic.
“If I knew that people were going to be looking at them 26 years later, I would’ve done better!” he joked. “I wrote the movie ‘Tougher Than Leather,’ which the Beastie Boys appeared in, then Rick Rubin suggested I would be a good director for ‘Fight for Your Right’ because I had new ideas and it was better to fail at a new idea than to succeed with a crappy old idea,” Menello explained.
Writer Rob Tannenbaum interviewed Menello for several hours for his 2011 book, “I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution,” and said he got the sense that Menello had a photographic memory when it came to film.
“He could talk about a specific film in such detail that it almost seemed as if he’d watched it that morning,” he said. “The word that kept coming up to describe his knowledge was ‘encyclopedic’ … The reason why he told me he initially said no to directing [the ‘Fight’ video] was that directing was sacred to him.”
Asked if Menello’s contribution to the early careers of the Beastie Boys and LL Cool J was an integral part of their success, Tannenbaum said without a doubt.
“There are no more than a handful of music videos that have done more for a band’s career and more vividly described their image than ‘Fight For Your Right To Party,’ did for the Beastie Boys,” he said. “He was one of the great characters I’ve met in the music business and he was an original.”
A memorial service is scheduled for Tuesday.