The ghetto that star comedian Dave Chappelle calls home is hippie enclave Yellow Springs, a 90-minute drive north of Cincinnati. In the summer of 2004, after the 32-year-old comic abandoned his hit cable TV show during its third season, he returned to his Ohio farm to spend time with his family and relax.
Before the controversy over his walkout, the outrageous comic threw the party of a lifetime. Chappelle put some of his TV salary to festive use by throwing a daylong block party in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. Music acts including Jill Scott, The Roots and Kanye West performed at a mystery location. Tickets were dispersed via word of mouth and special invite.
Thankfully, director Michael Gondry was there, filming the event for his easygoing and feel-good concert film, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. A happening this good should not be forgotten, and Gondry's film does the party justice.
Of the posse of young black comics — Chris Rock, Jamie Foxx, Eddie Griffin — Chappelle is the most irreverent and arguably the funniest. But Block Party is not the concert movie one expects. It's worlds apart from Griffin's recent concert film DysFUNKtional Family or Sarah Silverman's Jesus Is Magic.
Music takes priority over laughs in Block Party, but it's too much fun to complain. Gondry films Chappelle preparing for the party instead of performing material, whether tried and true or new. The result is lackadaisical good humor, with the people and sites of small-town Yellow Springs standing in as Chappelle's version of Mayberry.
Chappelle stops in at the town grocery store, jokes about the special mushroom topping at Ha-Ha's pizza parlor and walks the sidewalks inviting people from the neighborhood to come to Brooklyn via buses he's rented for the event. He solicits the Central State University marching band to perform. It's all coming together, and Chappelle makes the party planning irreverent and enjoyable.
A straightforward stand-up show like Dave Chappelle: Killin' Them Softly would generate more belly laughs, but Block Party offers something special. Here's Chappelle relaxed, at home, being himself and enjoying himself.
Block Party's musical moments matter most to Gondry, the French director who played drums for the band Oui Oui and gained early fame as the man behind music videos for Björk, The White Stripes and The Chemical Brothers.
Kanye West, Mos Def, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu and The Roots take the stage, and Gondry builds up each performance as better than the previous act.
West performs "Jesus Walks" with the college marching band around him. Badu joins Jill Scott for an impressive duet, but everything comes to a climax at the film's show-stopping number, a Fugees reunion with Lauryn Hill, Pras and Wyclef Jean performing a soulful version of "Killing Me Softly." It's incredible footage, and Gondry doesn't miss a beat. He proves his skills for capturing what makes musical artists tick.
Gondry's first film was the likable slapstick comedy Human Nature, and he followed that with the acclaimed but dizzy Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry is a comic filmmaker, one of the most original working today. Yet he looks to Block Party's strengths — Chappelle's funny banter and its musical acts — and correctly decides that it's a concert movie, not a stand-up film.
Gondry's cinematographer, Ellen Kuras, showed her experimental side on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, but she's more straightforward on Block Party. The film's handheld camera work is vibrant, alive and casual enough to fit the mood of a street party.
Still, Block Party is Chappelle's show. No matter how great the musicians might be, their performances would not mean as much without Chappelle onstage.
It's worth noting that he's not some ghetto kid. Like Rock, he's a middle-class kid with college-educated parents. He's an outsider to the gritty Bed-Stuy streets, much like his Yellow Springs neighbors. He watches his concert with wide-eyed wonder, and that sense of adventure and playfulness ripples throughout the film.
Chappelle is having a good time with the crowd, and his fun is infectious. You might not remember his work in various films like 200 Cigarettes, Con-Air or The Nutty Professor, but he's unforgettable in Block Party.
In the film's most poignant moment, Chappelle plays "Round Midnight" on the piano and speaks eloquently about Dexter Gordon, the improvisational spirit of Jazz and comedy and how lucky he is for his phenomenal success. There's honesty in the small scene, what every diary film needs to be successful. Grade: B