Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Dave Chappelle's Block Party

Overall Rating: (3.5)

James Kendrick

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Director: Michel Gondry
Features: Dave Chappelle, Erykah Badu, Common, Mos Def, Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Big Daddy Kane, Talib Kweli, John Legend, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Kanye West
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2006
Country: U.S.
Dave Chappelle's Block Party
Dave Chappelle's Block PartyAt its best, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is reminiscent of the great late-'60s and early-'70s pop culture documentaries, including D.A. Pennebaker's Don't Look Back (1967), Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock (1970), and the Maysles' Gimme Shelter (1970). Part of those films' greatness lies in the importance of their subjects, and only time will tell if comedian Dave Chappelle and his concert line-up maintains the enduring historical legacy of Bob Dylan or the Rolling Stones.

Even in the here and now, though, without the guaranteed stamp of lasting historical importance, Block Party is an exhilarating, deliriously alive documentary. Directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), it follows comedian Dave Chappelle as he organizes a free concert in the Bed-Stuy section of Brooklyn in September 2004 and then goes around handing out free tickets to random people in both his home town of Dayton, Ohio, and New York City. Lucky recipients include a woman who works the cash register at a convenience store, a couple of plain-clothes police officers, and the entire marching band of Ohio's Central State University.

The film was shot in grainy 16mm with handheld cameras, which gives it an immediacy and a palpable sense of life. Gondry structures the film in nonlinear fashion, cutting among footage shot at the actual concert, the preparations and rehearsals beforehand, and the days leading up to the event as Chappelle establishes locations (including the roof of a day care center that Biggie Smalls attended as a child) and hands out tickets. Gondry is playful in cutting between time and space, giving the film a jumpy, vibrant rhythm; at one point, Chappelle is telling a groaner of a joke on stage, and Gondry cuts to the rehearsal days before for the delivery of the punchline. It's a giddy-fun moment that neatly sums up Block Party's vibrance.

Yet, like all of Chappelle's prankster-wicked comedy, Block Party has an important social edge, one that is elaborated not only in the frequently sensitive documenting of a decaying neighborhood brought to life by Chappelle's concert, but in the music itself, which is so intense, joyous, and gloriously alive that it reminds you of just how powerful great music can be.

In this respect, Chappelle's concert line-up is nothing short of impressive, and the film is replete with amazing musical moments, whether it be Kanye West's impassioned performance of "Jesus Walks" with backup vocals by John Legend, or The Roots' pounding out their infectious song "Boom," or the unexpected reunion of The Fugees and Lauryn Hill's searing rendition of the weepy standard "Killing Me Softly With His Song." Chappelle acts as emcee, doing his particular brand of raucous racial joking in-between sets, but it's testament to his dedication and understanding of the event that he doesn't dominate it. In fact, Chappelle frequently fades to the sideline as the musical groups take over, offering a blisteringly memorable snapshot of hip hop's state of the art in 2004.

Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick

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