Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 01, 2006
‘Uh, yes-yes, y’all?’: Comedian Dave Chapelle throws a party in Brooklyn and documents it all.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party
Starring Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Kanye West, The Fugees, The Roots, Common, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu. Directed by Michel Gondry. Written by Dave Chappelle. Rated R.
Turn My Head-phones Up

Dave Chappelle and his musical guests rock Brooklyn and your local movie theater.


For all the thousands of hours of entertainment I’m exposed to professionally every year, it’s not often that a movie, tv show, web site, or anything else makes me hurt myself laughing. Yet that’s exactly how funny I found two seasons of Chappelle’s Show to be. The Comedy Central program starring longtime standup comic Dave Chappelle featured filmed sketches that cut deeply into the differences between white and black America and, not incidentally, were sidesplittingly funny. Everyone has their favorite sketch: the blind black white supremacist, the ad for Samuel L. Jackson Beer, the crazy night out with Wayne Brady, “I’m Rick James, bitch!” (As you might tell from the headline, I’m partial to the one about the gangsta rapper with audio problems.)

Sadly, the star couldn’t keep it up. In the middle of last year, Chappelle had some sort of crack-up, left the country for a while, and ended up walking away from a newly signed $50 million deal with his tv network. Whether or not you believe the reports about illegal pharmaceuticals and stays in mental health facilities, it’s pretty clear that the pressure of living up to his previous standard of excellence got to him. There would be no third season of Chappelle’s Show, and the keening disappointment from his fans could be felt everywhere.

This week, though, the movie theaters offer a powerful anti-depressant to ease that pain in the form of Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. You see, on Sept. 18, 2004, just a few weeks after signing that aforementioned $50 million deal, the comic celebrated by throwing a huge block party on a rainy afternoon in Brooklyn. A crowd of thousands attended, some from the neighborhood and others invited and bused in from Dayton, Ohio, near where Chappelle grew up. They all came to see him perform his comedy act, lunch on barbecued chicken, and listen to an all-star lineup of musical talent. Filmmaker Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) was on hand to record it.

The film jumps between concert footage from the party and the weeks leading up to it. Gondry and his crew follow Chappelle around as he publicizes the event and talks with both Ohioans and Brooklynites, including an eccentric hippie couple who live in a large, bizarrely decked out house near Party Central. (They don’t like rap music. She prefers Rachmaninov and intends to marry the Russian composer when she dies and joins him in the afterlife.) When Chappelle hangs out with the musicians, the comic’s inner musician comes to the surface, as he makes up his own blues lyrics with the band and sits down to play “Misty” and “Round Midnight” on a hideously out-of-tune grand piano. All this is blissfully free of any seriousness — we don’t want to hear celebrities make a big deal about giving back to the community.

Chappelle is even better when he’s onstage during the concert. The comic highlight is when he invites a member of the crowd to come up and emcee. He’s a black man with a Mohawk haircut, so Chappelle wastes no time in calling him “Mr. T.” The guy’s rhymes are horrible, but the comic defends him to the crowd (“Seriously, the way he rhymed ‘late’ and ‘gate’ was genius!”) and then deflects attention from the guy by busting out his own rhymes, which are much worse. That’s a gracious host.

Of course, this host also knows that a party is only as good as its guests. Chappelle scores a real coup reuniting The Fugees. As often happens, the moment of their reunion upstages their actual performance — the best part is when a fan shouts out to Lauryn Hill, asking where she’s been, and the singer points backstage to where her little son is and says, “That’s where I’ve been.” Elsewhere, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Common dazzle you with their prowess on “Get By,” while the socially conscious duo Dead Prez galvanizes the crowd with “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop.” Erykah Badu’s contributions (“Back in the Day” and “Love of My Life”) are a welcome laid-back change of pace, and her duet with Jill Scott on “You Got Me,” with The Roots as backup is thrilling stuff. The best performance comes from Kanye West on his troubled, electrifying “Jesus Walks,” assisted by Common, honey-voiced John Legend, and a marching band from Ohio reinforcing the song’s anthemic beat. More than anything else, that song made me wish I’d been in Brooklyn on that day.

In the end, that’s how you judge these concert movies. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party gives you the vibe of what it must have felt like to be there, and it’s the most fun I’ve had at the movies in some time. Too bad most multiplexes won’t let you bring your own barbecued chicken and beer into the theater, because that’d be the perfect way to watch this movie. The concert ends with Chappelle shouting, “We did it! We shook the world!” No you didn’t, Dave. You just threw a helluva party. Thanks for that.

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