The Theory of Chaos

Monday, October 29, 2007

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - Block Party

Originally published 3/6/06
Full review behind the jump

Block Party

: Michel Gondry
: Dave Chappelle
: Dave Chappelle, Bob Yari, Julie Fong, Michel Gondry
: Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Kanye West, The Fugees, Erykah Badu, Common, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, The Roots, Big Daddy Kane, and many others

Dave Chappelle, former mid-level comedian, actor and writer turned multi-millionaire Comedy Central hitmaker, watches from the rooftops in
Block Party – looks down on a bumping, electric rap concert that’s taken over a corner of Bed-Stuy. It only exists because he willed it so, and he could only will it so because he’s the multi-millionaire now. He’s digging the music, loving the chance to hang out with musicians he respects and admires, and absorbing the beneficent feelings of having given such a great entertainment to people who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to afford it.

But for all of that, he’s still
up there, on the rooftop, not down on the street moving in the crowd. When he invites a member of the audience on stage to have a mock rap battle, and the guy playfully wrestles with him, Dave jokingly threatens to call security: “I’m worth too much money now!” It’s one of a tiny handful of moments where he reveals pained self-awareness covered by self-effacing humor. Dave Chappelle became the Fifty Million Dollar Man practically overnight, the mammoth renewal deal for his sketch comedy show obliterating any remaining chance of an anonymous life.

And in the wake of that he made a stunning gesture – pulling the plug on the show at the height of the mania around it. Now, in this combination documentary/concert film by long-time music video director and
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind filmmaker Michel Gondry, we see that in those first weeks of struggling with the change in his life he made another large gesture: putting on this show. It might have been a choice between this or a nervous breakdown. Or maybe he had both and only filmed this part.

The film covers the few days leading up to and including a concert Chappelle produced and hosted in Brooklyn in September of 2004, which featured a legends line-up of rap and hip-hop stars like Mos Def, Kanye West, Dead Prez, and, reunited to ecstatic reception, the Fugees. Tireless funk musicians The Roots provide the backup for most of the performers, and the camera frequently finds drummer Ahmir '?uestlove' Thompson, who has towering hair and pounds away in an intense trance of rhythm.

Many of the big name stars talk about cutting their teeth in front of The Roots in their pre-fame club days, some reminisce about the schools they all went to within blocks of each other. And you see the performances – charged and angry and passionate, and you get a taste of something that’s raw, and came from somewhere real. Lauryn Hill sings an absolutely spine-tingling version of Killing Me Softly that starts with minimal accompaniment but grows with the power of her voice. The reaction of the audience to this, to Mos Def’s glowing charisma and hope, to Kanye West’s thrumming and apocalyptic Jesus Walks, is a palpable contrast to the processed and nutrient-free slurry which largely passes for rock and pop these days. If this generation has a Woodstock moment, it will happen at a rap show, and if you must pick one virtue to take away from this movie, maybe the chief one is that it dismantles the notion that all rap is just a monolithic gangsta-bling fantasy. There’s substance here.

Those expecting a feature-length “Chappelle’s Show” may be put off – his appearances are fleeting and off-the-cuff. You see him enjoying the spontaneous atmosphere, working the crowd, feeling his way to laughs using his natural timing and unerring post-P.C. straight talk. For one stretch he sits at a piano, noodling at “’Round Midnight”, exhorting viewers to listen to some Thelonious Monk, and riffing on the relationship between comedians and musicians. And gradually the guard drops, and suddenly he blurts – “I am mediocre at both, and yet I have managed to talk my way into a fortune”. Again, at a moment when he most firmly has our attention, he questions his worthiness to be its subject.

We walk around the streets of Dayton, Ohio, where he lives. He thanks shopkeepers for treating him like a normal person – he introduces us to local tailors and pizza parlors. And yet the common thread is – they all know he’s someone Big in the outside world, and their affection for him, genuine as it is, is colored by that. They can’t Un-Know it. He can reach out to them by distributing Golden Tickets good for a bus trip and hotel room in New York so they can attend the concert (a middle-aged woman amusingly worries about what to wear), he can even spontaneously decide to sponsor a college marching band to come join the show. And they all show decency and gratitude and excitement about the experience, but again, all of what’s unfolding is based on the premise that “Dave Chappelle” has become a superstar. He can no longer walk down a sidewalk without risking some stranger across the street yelling “I’m Rick James, bitch!”; and he’s wondering what to do about that.

This movie is messy, a little too long, jumps from mood to mood. Sometimes it celebrates the verve of the concert, letting you feel like you’re close to a moment of true creative conception. I like how it cross-cuts from rehearsal to performance as Chappelle works up a comedy bit where he tells corny jokes with disgusting punchlines while Mos Def drums and plays the straight man role. It fits the looseness of the event – planned enough that people are going to get a full bill of entertainment, but with wide spaces inside for spontaneity and magic to happen.

Then sometimes it’s content to play the Isn’t Americana Weird? game, zeroing in on bizarre personalities and recording their antics for our amusement. Though we stick with a few long enough to embrace them, I personally get uncomfortable with this sort of thing after too long. It’s a cheat in a country that’s not exactly lacking for people willing to goon around on camera. But when Block Party is its most engrossing as a film document, it’s about those precious couple of instances where we catch a man whose life has transformed even while he has not, and who determines to face that challenge with daring and humor. And the guts to put on a hell of a show and not charge admission.


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