Even with two jokes about an industrious prostitute and a man with an incredibly short penis, Dave Chappelles Block Party is surprisingly short on the one-liners. What it has in spades is a completely unexpected sentimentality. With direction by Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Minds Michel Gondry, it just may turn out to be the feel-good movie of the year.
Gondry does an excellent job contrasting Chappelles man-on-the-street interviews with scenes from the actual block party, which took place on September 18, 2004. Chappelles all-star lineup includes Kanye West, who delivers an electrifying rendition of Jesus Walks, and Erykah Badu, who chucks cautionand her wigto the wind when a strong gust threatens to ruin her fake fro.
But the most moving performance belongs to Wyclef Jean, who treats members of Ohios Central State University marching band to a low-key version of If I Was President. Its good to see all these young black kids in college, he announces, before informing them that they alone are responsible for their own destinies. Dont blame the white man for anything. Theres libraries in the ghetto.
Pretty heady stuff for a documentary about a comedian whos best known for his misogynistic caricature of Rick James. Thats the surprise and delight of Dave Chappelles Block Party. And its not bad watching the reunited Fugees perform, either.
Above all, the comedian knows how to work a crowd, and in this concert filmreminiscent of Martin Scorseses 1978 The Last Waltzthat includes the movie-goers. One of the biggest laughs comes from an informal interview between Chappelle and a fan, in which the fan apologizes for the use of profanity in front of the camera crew. In response, Chappelle lobs a much stronger obscenity at the screenseemingly at the audience itself. See? This is a movie. You can say whatever you want! Chappelle declares. After his battles with the censors at Comedy Central, that must be a liberating statement indeed. And unlike certain other products of that cable channelSouth Park comes to mindChappelle never resorts to the lazy comedians crutch of obscenity for obscenitys sake.
Block Party takes a long time to get going, though, and for a while, I wondered how lyrics like all the girls pass the weed to the motherfucking man were supposed to inspire anyone. But Chappelle chooses his musical acts wisely, mixing the profane with the overtly political (Dead Prez) and the spiritual (Jill Scott). Scotts performance was a little lackluster, as she sang about the minutiae of her day, but I appreciated the multiplicity of voices.
A good portion of the film takes place in Chappelles hometown of Dayton, Ohio. Chappelle cant resist a few good-natured jabs at the townsfolkhe likens a particularly eccentric couples home to a crack housebut he is surprisingly humble around them. No show-business swagger here. The poster doesnt lie when it bills some folks from Ohio second after Chappelle.
Gondry wisely eschews documentary tropes such as intertitles and voice-over narration, letting Chappelle provide the facts whenever necessary. In fact, its easy to forget that Block Party is a documentarythe action unfolds so organically, it seems as if the concert is taking place in real time, and I can think of no higher praise.
Block Party wisely plays its trump card within the last 15 minutes. The reunion of the Fugeeswho havent performed together since 1997is worth the price of admission alone. But Block Party takes it one step further, as Lauryn Hill reminisces about meeting fellow Fugees Wyclef Jean and Prakazrel Pras Michel in a segment that plays like a Behind the Music outtake, only interesting. She even admits that she grew up in the suburbs, which seems daring after so many artists have shared their rags-to-riches stories.
Talented comedians like Margaret Cho release concert films roughly once a year but do nothing new with the format. By organizing the documentary around Chappelles block party, Gondry breathes new life into the tired genre of stand-up movie and shows a side of the comedian that a casual fan like me would never have realized. Block Party is a film by the edgiest comedian around that you could enjoy with your grandmother. Provided shes OK with a few jokes about prostitutes and incredibly short penises.