DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTYR
In September 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle was flying high. Not only was his envelope-pushing TV series "Chappelle's Show" a certified pop-culture phenomenon (say it with me now: "I'm Rick James, bitch!"), but he also had just signed a new deal with Comedy Central worth $50 million. To celebrate his good fortune, the newly crowned King of Comedy decided to throw an old-fashioned block party in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn and enlisted director Michel Gondry to record the event for posterity. The day-long bash featured lots of food, laughs and music, courtesy of such big-name acts as Kanye West, Mos Def and Erykah Badu. In between sets, Chappelle worked the mic to keep the crowd's spirits up and their minds off the rainy weather. Like any good showman, he saved the biggest surprise for last, welcoming hip-hop superstars Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean and Pras-aka The Fugees-to the stage to play together for the first time in almost eight years. "We changed the world," Chappelle shouted triumphantly as the curtain fell on his first block party, and those in attendance seemed to agree.
Flash forward to 2006 and the world definitely has changed...at least for Chappelle. For one thing, he's no longer Comedy Central's $50 million man, having abandoned his series only weeks before the third season was scheduled to premiere. After fleeing to South Africa to clear his head, the comic returned home last summer and has been quietly making appearances at various stand-up clubs ever since. Those events can't help but cast a certain pall over the film version of his block party, entitled, appropriately enough, Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Watching the movie, it's difficult not to wonder whether Chappelle is genuinely enjoying himself or if he's just using this event as a smokescreen for his personal problems. We'll probably never know and in the context of the movie, it ultimately doesn't matter. After all, Gondry isn't making a biopic here or a Don't Look Back-style portrait of the artist as an angry young man. Block Party takes its cue from concert films like The Last Waltz and Eddie Murphy Raw, emphasizing the onstage performances while also providing a glimpse of what was happening in the wings.
In planning his party, Chappelle knew he wanted a good mix of guests. So in addition to Bed-Stuy residents, the invite list was opened to New York's other four boroughs as well as the citizens of the small Ohio town where Chappelle lives when he's not on the road. (The comedian actually handed out golden tickets to the latter set of partygoers, redeemable for round-trip transport to Brooklyn as well as a room for the night at a local Holiday Inn.) Apparently the organizers didn't work too hard at spreading the word locally, though, as attendance seems surprisingly low for a concert with such high-profile performers. But what the crowd lacks in size, it makes up for in spirit. From the moment Kanye West takes the stage to perform "Jesus Walks," the audience is dancing and singing along. Chappelle proves a gracious host as well, inviting one of his guests onstage to perform in a mock rap battle and tossing out impromptu one-liners whenever things slow down. He's almost too involved with the proceedings at times; the film develops a bad habit of cutting away from the musicians to Chappelle joking around with the audience or with his buddies offstage. Similarly, footage of the comedian visiting a local school or talking with the eccentrics who live on the block only cuts into time that could be better spent back at the concert. It's a little frustrating that Gondry plays so few of these performances in their entirety; sure, this is Dave's party, but he can't croon like Erykah Badu or jam like The Roots.
Still, a concert film can be labeled a success if it has at least three show-stopping moments and Block Party definitely meets that minimum. Aside from West's great rendition of "Jesus Walks," R&B singer Jill Scott delivers the day's best performance, belting out her number with a power that would make Aretha Franklin proud. Finally, there's Lauryn Hill tentatively tearing into the opening lines of "Killing Me Softly" while the crowd looks on in awed silence (Gondry wisely doesn't cut this song short). Dave Chappelle's Block Party may not be in the league of such masterful concert films as The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense, but scenes like these make you glad someone was there to capture the show on digital video.