Dave Chappelle's Block Party / Daniel Carlson
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()
I was right in the middle of college when “Chappelle’s Show” premiered on Comedy Central, placing me among its primary target demographic. The show came out of nowhere to take over the network, delivering a cultural cachet rivaled only by early “South Park” and making everyone think they were Rick James at the club or Prince playing basketball. The show’s many catchphrases worked their way into the mainstream-masquerading-as-underground culture; the backlash was inevitable, but no expected that backlash to come from Dave Chappelle himself, who, shortly after signing a $50 million deal with Comedy Central before production of the show’s third season, called it quits and went to Africa to clear his head. The third season never aired, though Comedy Central will soon be airing four half-hour episodes culled from unused footage shot before Chappelle shut everything down.
This is all necessary for you to understand, because without the history, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party might just seem like any other concert film, or an excuse for publicists to milk Chappelle’s youth appeal for a few more pennies, when it’s really a portrait of an artist finally breaking free. Chappelle has spoken about how the show burned him out, as well as the artificiality of Los Angeles in general and the industry in specific, and the film captures the moment in September 2004, five months after the last episode of his show had aired, when Chappelle visibly decided to do things his way. Directed by Michel Gondry, of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and music videos for Bjork and the White Stripes, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is an energetic, entertaining, buoyant documentary that manages to combine hip-hop, comedy, and portraits of real people to turn a concert film into a positive manifesto about humanity.
The film starts with the New York concert, then cuts to three days earlier, when Chappelle went home to Dayton, Ohio, to pass out tickets to the show to shopkeepers, cashiers, and kids on the street. As well as including a charter bus ride to the show and back and a hotel room for the night after the concert, the tickets go to a wide variety of people: young, old, black, white. Chappelle likes Ohio because people there treat him normally, and it’s clear he’s eager to pay them back by inviting the people he loves the most to the free party he’s having. While there, he also recruits the Central State University marching band and drumline to come to the show and play for the crowd and the artists, and when they get to New York, it’s a blast watching these college kids play a horn-heavy “Jesus Walks” under the approving eye of Kanye West. West actually gets the concert started with “Get ‘Em High,” and he’s helped by Common and Talib Kweli, both of whom will perform again later. The roster also features Mos Def, Cody Chesnutt, John Legend, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, the Roots, Big Daddy Kane, and the reunion performance of the Fugees. It’s a stellar lineup, and Gondry captures the performances with an intimacy and energy rarely seen in concert footage. The artists involved keep the energy high, and Gondry cuts between the live performances and rehearsal footage, breaking to show Chappelle exploring Brooklyn, which is where the film really finds its voice.
There are the two extremely unbalanced but kind couple who live in a building they’ve dubbed the Broken Angel, right where the concert will take place. The woman discusses her preference for classical music and her plans to marry Rachmaninoff after her death, but they’re both happy to have Chappelle’s company. Chappelle also visits the nearby day care that Biggie once attended, where he plays with the kids and talks with the administrators about the economic condition of the area. All the artists weigh in, as well, since many of them grew up in or around Bed-Stuy. Mos Def talks about his childhood in the rundown neighborhood, lamenting that “it’s been that way forever.” Gondry uses scenes like this to great effect, underscoring the music’s social message by concretizing it with stories of real people.
Free from the burden of producing a weekly show for studio suits and frat boys, Chappelle is noticeably happy throughout the film, and relentlessly funny. He doesn’t so much tell jokes at the concert as he does fulfill the role of a confident emcee, making everyone laugh as he introduces some of his favorite musicians, who never fail to exceed expectations and put on a solid show. Jill Scott’s performance in particular stands out, her psychedelic melismas almost channeling Grace Slick, while Erykah Badu harks back to classic R&B, thanks to the large band that supports the performers, including multiple guitarists, bassists, drummers, keyboard players, and even a small but powerful horn section. The show builds to the Fugees performance: Wyclef Jean comes out first, then Pras, then Lauryn Hill, launching into “Nappy Heads” as the crowd explodes. The cheers get even louder when they transition into “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” For the first couple of verses, it’s a toned-down affair, with Hill laying smooth vocals of Wyclef’s organ work. But the entire band comes in for the rest of the tune, lifting the crowd even higher and providing an amazing resolution to the show.
Chappelle calls the concert “the best single day of my career,” and it’s clear that he means it. At the concert, he wears a T-shirt with an image of Richard Pryor emblazoned on the front, and it’s not hard to see why Chappelle feels can relate to Pryor; besides being hailed sometimes as the Pryor of his generation, Chappelle also escaped to Africa to reevaluate his life and redefine his style. His humor here is colored with an almost calm sense of accomplishment; you get the feeling that this is all he ever wanted to do. And if he keeps putting on shows like this one, that’s fine with me.
Daniel Carlson is the L.A. critic for Pajiba and a copy editor for a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his weblog, Slowly Going Bald.