In 2004, Dave Chappelle was at the height of his formidable comedic powers. His show on Comedy Central was a smash (which, depending on how fond you were of idiots repeatedly screaming, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” could be viewed as either a good or bad thing) and he’d recently entered into negotiations with the network to start making some real money for his efforts.
We all know what happened last year: the negotiations were fruitful, to say the least, and to celebrate his $50 million contract, Chappelle promptly took a powder, leaving everyone to wonder what the hell happened to cause him to flee (to Africa, as it turned out). His new movie “Block Party” takes place before all this weirdness, however. In ’04, Chappelle was merely interested in putting together a little show featuring some of his favorite musical acts and some comedy, and there’s not much hint of the erratic behavior to come.
Enlisting Michel Gondry (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) to direct, Chappelle starts out in his Ohio hometown, surprising locals with an offer of tickets and transportation to Brooklyn so they can attend an impromptu cavalcade of hip-hop and R&B stars. These scenes are among the movie’s funniest, as excited locals discuss their plans for the big trip. They also show Chappelle’s easy way of communicating with people, a personality trait on display throughout much of the movie. However, the film doesn’t follow events in what you’d call a very linear fashion, as we jump back and forth between performance footage, preparations for the show itself, and Chappelle himself mugging both with folks from his hometown and the musical artists themselves.
And what artists they are. Chappelle brings in marquee names like Kanye West and Erykah Badu as well as the Roots, Mos Def, and a host of others. The evening culminates with a reunion of the Fugees, who haven’t performed together since 1997. There’s so much music, in fact, that Chappelle fans hungry for new material may be a bit put out. Likewise, music fans might be annoyed that Gondry often cuts away from acts mid-performance in order to show us Dave goofing around with the guys in rehearsal or revisiting the Ohio folks on their sojourn to the Big Apple.
That’s “Block Party” in a nutshell, really. Marketed as a comedy with musical interludes, it’s really a concert film with interviews and the occasional comedic break. The performers are of sufficiently high caliber (well, except maybe Kanye, but that’s a personal preference) that most fans should be forgiving. Not only do you get the Fugees and a Black Star reunion, but there’s Big Daddy Kane hopping on stage to sing with the Roots, and Jill Scott in a duet with Badu on “You Got Me.” Great stuff, but those of you expecting wall-to-wall sketches and Charlie Murphy are going to be disappointed.
Chappelle also works in quite a few messages about black empowerment, some of which are couched in his usual self-deprecating style, others of which come across pretty boldly; Dead Prez’s whole act, for example, is one continuous exhortation to the black community. There’s also an appearance by Fred Hampton, Jr., son of the former head of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers. Curiously, this angle wasn’t exploited by Rogue Pictures.
“Block Party” is a wholly entertaining film, both as a musical experience and in seeing a fairly relaxed Dave Chappelle doing some of what he does best. And while it probably won’t fill the hole left by the loss of “Chappelle’s Show” for his legions of fans, it might provide enough new material to take the edge off the withdrawal.