Movie Review
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
2006
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, ?uestlove
A-


all comedians want to be musicians, and all musicians think they’re funny.”




That’s Dave Chappelle, still mostly sane at the time, semi-musing on the paradoxically linked worlds of comedy and music while sitting at a piano, casually and awkwardly performing his rendition of Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight.” Later, when we see Mos Def acting as Dave’s straight man in an inexplicably hilarious bit in the audition studio—played as a sort of nod to old-school vaudeville—you begin to really see Dave’s point. Relying on the finer points of elements such as timing and delivery, there is no conditioned, perfect way to write a song any more than there is a perfect way to tell a joke (something made clear to a lot of us slower folks after The Aristocrats). The process is fiercely personal and indicative of the strength of the performer more than anything else. At its core, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (Michel Gondry’s first stab at the concert documentary) attempts to bridge the conditioned gaps between these two forums of the entertainment world, and expose the more organic, and often spiritual aspects of both.

The film, delivered in a completely non-linear narrative, focuses primarily on the build-up and fruition of what Dave envisions as the concert he’s “always wanted to see.” Legendary, and soon-to-be-legendary, hip hop and R&B; artists, including Kanye West, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, Common, The Roots, Talib Kweli, Erykah Badu, and a reformed Fugees are all featured in an intimate block party on the streets of Brooklyn. Gondry juxtaposes footage from the show itself with Dave enticing various people to actually show up in the first place, lending a sense of accomplishment to Dave’s feat from the get-go. The suspense is never about whether or not the block party would occur, but rather how many people would be able to enjoy it.

Through his lens, Gondry gives this narrow Brooklyn block an authenticity all its own, without utilizing any cosmetic or superficial alterations. After countless shots of Dave roaming the streets of New York and his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, offering free tickets to the show, you get the distinct, and surprisingly unforced, impression that maybe he was doing this “for the fans.” Even when Dave drops in on the old daycare center that Christopher Wallace used to attend, and visits with the kids for a bit, there is no heightened sentimentality to any of it. Gondry, in a remarkably subtle way, is able to communicate Chappelle’s deep admiration and respect for the artists involved and the roles they play—not only within the black community, but society as a whole.


Taking place in front of the dilapidated “Broken Angel” (a building as curiously named as its owners are clinically eccentric), Block Party provides the viewer with some of the more stellar live performances put to film in a long while. Whether it’s Dead Prez dropping a bare-bones set full of straight-up up anger and talent; Kanye leading an extremely lucky young marching band down the street as they play the music to “Jesus Walks,” in a stunningly affecting moment of unabashed grandiosity; or the inadvertent chills you get when Lauryn Hill takes the stage for the first time and sings “Killin’ Me Softly.”

Gondry has an understanding of the intimate and the epic. He captures the delicate balance between a good show and an exceptional one precisely because he is able to grasp the obvious and calculated showmanship that shines through in these performers. Melding together scenes of audition and live performance serves to drive home the idea of the tightrope these artists walk on a daily basis. In the same audition room, Dave will condemn how easy the life of a comedian is, while diligently rehearing and shaping material he will later use at the show. Roots’ drummer, and general music aficionado, ?uestlove, later comments on Dave’s adaptability and general ease with regard to improvisation on the piano, which, of course, translates nicely to his work on stage.

Beyond all of this, though, you can’t miss the real stars of the movie: the fans. Block Party is, ultimately, about the enjoyment these fans derive from the performances of the artists on display. Whether it’s laughing at a comedian or being touched by a piece of music, the similarities in their respective creative processes only heighten the affects of either medium honed to sublimity. Sure, in theory, it’s all a bit romanticized, but Gondry is consciously even-handed in his distribution of poignancy along with reality and humor. This is an earnest, funny, and impressively made surprise of a film. The only downside for most of us viewers is that, well, we weren’t actually there.


By: Daniel Rivera
Published on: 2006-03-10
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