Judge Joe Armenio's block party was a disappointment, despite the presence of several prominent yodelers.
"You rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A
Beemer, a necklace, or freedom?"
Dave Chappelle's Block Party, directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), is an account of a free concert organized by the comedian in September of 2004, featuring R & B and hip-hop notables Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, The Fugees, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, The Roots, and Big Daddy Kane, with Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson as musical director, but it's a whole lot else besides. It's a hilarious Chappelle-at-large comedy film, a Linklater-esque celebration of human variety and strangeness, and a joyous and humane celebration of art and community, in its light and unpretentious way the best American political film of a season heavy with message movies. Bed-Stuy, y'all!
Facts of the Case
The concert was a community affair, free of charge, held on a street in Brooklyn, with invitations spread by word of mouth (concertgoers were transported to the site by bus, and not told who was performing). Chappelle gave admission, Willy Wonka golden-ticket style, to a number of folks from Yellow Springs, Ohio, the small town where he lives, including his barber, the owner of a corner store, and the entire Central State University marching band. Gondry skips between performances, rehearsals, Chappelle's wanderings through the community, and his Ohio adventures (not many critics have put this film in the context of the director's other work, but the lack of concern for the linear progression of time suggests Eternal Sunshine).
It's telling that Chappelle's 2005 crisis of conscience, during which production of a third season of his Comedy Central show was shut down, was construed by the press and entertainment industry as a "breakdown"; apparently self-awareness, reflection, thoughtful doubt, and a hesitancy to take the money and run are such alien concepts in our culture that they need to be described in the language of mental illness. Seen in this context, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is especially moving, an attempt to create, in the heart of an American culture that seems to value nothing but power and consumption and self-aggrandizement, an event built around values often name-checked but seldom exercised: unity and creativity.
Presenting the film in a non-linear way is in inspired idea, since it makes the preparation into much more than a build-up to the finished product. What's important is the process of creating and affirming community: the camaraderie of rehearsals, the storytelling, the bringing together of probation officers and shopkeepers from Yellow Springs with Mos Def and the Roots and the party's Bed-Stuy hosts. The editing conveys this joy of process with an effortless vigor, carrying us expertly from Bed-Stuy to Ohio, and back and forth in time. The overall effect, especially in the film's first half, is like that of one of Richard Linklater's plotless meditations on oddity, Slacker and Waking Life. Strange as the comparison may seem, it also reminds me of Robert Altman's A Prairie Home Companion, another film about a group of people united, with bonds both fragile and tenacious, by music.
Gondry and Chappelle's approach is quietly radical: I'm sure plenty of people expecting a concert film will be disappointed when the film pauses for a lengthy digression featuring the owners of Bed-Stuy's monumentally odd "Broken Angel" house, for example. There's a marvelous offhand poetry in the way Gondry lingers over the interaction of Chappelle with a guy who's trying to fix his car, or the bond between a couple of giddy college boys whom Chappelle invites to the show, or the comedian's reverent piano imitation of Thelonious Monk. Besides being in sync of with the themes of both film and concert, this discursive style is a perfect stylistic match with Chappelle's laid-back egalitarianism.
Politics is always present, in a resolutely unpreachy way: Chappelle says at one point that he invited artists one doesn't often hear on the radio, who aren't afraid to criticize those in power in blunt and often profane ways (Dead Prez, for example). His preference is for those artists who present a vision of the world more hopeful than the violent nihilism which the mainstream media often highlights as characteristic of rap (although there is room at Chappelle's table for gangstas too; he and several of the artists have praise for Bed-Stuy native The Notorious B.I.G.). We're quietly shown that Bed-Stuy is not the most affluent of neighborhoods, although it has its gentrified pockets (Chappelle says that some of it looks like The Cosby Show, while other parts look like Good Times). Chappelle spends some time talking about the neighborhood with local artists and visits the local daycare center (where he introduces the kids to gambling).
The film's second half is more focused on the performances, many of which are very good; the artists were energized by the company and the intimate setting, and the joy of having dodged a predicted downpour. Among the highlights are a stirring "Jesus Walks" from Kanye West, accompanied by the Central State band; Dead Prez' "Hip-Hop"; Big Daddy Kane sitting in with The Roots, and an impromptu duet between Erykah Badu and Jill Scott. Chappelle joshes around with the band, using Mos Def as a drummer/straight man for some corny jokes and doing a funny routine about James Brown's signature "hit me!" commands. The big culminating event is a reunion of the Fugees, with Lauryn Hill singing "Killing Me Softy With His Song." As good as everyone is, I found myself getting a bit disappointed when the focus increasingly turned to performance late in the movie, with an increasing number of scenes devoted to the artists' cult of mutual appreciation. Still, this is a minor complaint.
I have no complaints about either video or sound (a 5.1 Surround mix). The DVD contains an "unrated" version of the film, apparently with some material that was cut from the theatrical release (I didn't see it in the theater, so you're on your own; I don't have much patience for this kind of pointless futzing with theatrical releases, which seems an obligatory means of creating interest in high-profile DVDs these days). A little more interesting is a function which allows one to see extended versions of musical numbers which are presented only partially in the film. An icon comes up on the screen at the beginning of the song and the viewer can choose to watch the extended performance, after which the film resumes. For the record, one can see four performances this way: two by Dead Prez, one by Jill Scott, and one by The Roots. The optional English subtitles include not only dialogue but also lyrics, which is a nice feature.
A "Making of" featurette is somewhat redundant in a film as digressive and self-conscious as this one, but the 28-minute documentary included here is worth a watch; it's nice to see Gondry at work (he's mostly invisible in the film itself) and hear appreciations of his method from Chappelle, cinematographer Ellen Kuras, and producer Skot Bright. Chappelle also says that it was Gondry's inspired idea to hold the concert in Bed-Stuy rather than a larger venue. "The Ohio Players" is an 18-minute piece which elaborates on the stories of the people from Yellow Springs whom Chappelle invited to the show.
Don't be put off by the critics who whined about the fact that this is not a straight concert film. It's much more than that.
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Scales of Justice
• September in Brooklyn: The Making of Block Party
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