"If (fun on the set) meant anything, then Cannonball Run would be a great movie, because I'm sure it was fun to make." – Steven Soderbergh, Indiewire
Dave Chappelle's Block Party should be a nightmare – a self-indulgent vanity project without real rhyme or reason, a concert film with no organizing principle behind it other than that might be fun. ... But Dave Chappelle's Block Party is a lot of fun, and it never feels like you're peeking through the keyhole of a locked door at all the excitment the cool kids are having without you. What's even better is the fact that Chappelle's event and the subsequent film don't just offer the sights and sounds of a multi-millionaire comedian and his musician pals relaxing and having a good time; there's some serious stuff going on in this film behind the backbeats and smiles.
But there are backbeats and smiles, and plenty of them. Dave Chappelle organized a free concert for September 18th, 2004, to be held in Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Not only were the bands performing kept secret, so was the actual location of the event; New Yorkers were invited, and at the same time the film opens with Chappelle roving the small town in Ohio nearest to where he makes his home and dispensing 'Golden Tickets" – good for a ride on a chartered bus, a hotel room and admission to the show – to the people in his community.
And Chappelle – mocking, mischievous and sharply aware of everything he's getting away with – is having a blast.
He offers a ticket to the septuagenarian counter-woman at the small store where he buys his cigarettes, and exhorts her to come dressed correct: "Bring your Timberlands!" Driving by the playing fields of Ohio's Central State University, Chappelle sees the marching band practicing – and, on a whim, hops out of the car and invites them to play the block party. Transport and accommodation provided. Of course, they agree to play.
And even as Chappelle extends himself to Ohio's regla'r folks for the party, he does the same with some of New York's leading lights of hip-hop and soul: Artists playing the block party include Dead Prez, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Kanye West and a reunion by The Fugees, who previously hadn't played together in years. Many of these artists aren't household names, and Chappele has his own reason why he thinks that's the case: In modern music, he says, "The more you say with it, the less play you get for it." But when you're a mercurial multi-millionaire with nothing to do and all day to do it, why not throw a party and make a movie of it? Why not spend millions – which you'll probably make back – with no other reason than because, as Chappelle says, "This is the concert I've always wanted to see"?
Director Michel Gondry has obviously watched some of the more obvious precedents for this project – Woodstock, Wattstax, Richard Pryor's concert films. There's not a lot of room for inventiveness in the shooting of the film – you can only do so much trying to capture people performing on stage – but it's the cutting of the movie that truly shapes it. Gondry manages to jump from intimate moments to the excitement of the crowd, from preparations for the big day to the concert itself. And a lot of the cuts are impressive; as the CSU marching band arrives at the party, they kick out a big band arrangement of Kanye West's single "Jesus Walks" ... as West looks on, amused and amazed, and then the film jumps to West onstage performing the song himself.
What makes Chappelle's film worth watching closely, though, is the way it quietly and simply offers an alternate perspective – and perhaps some criticism -- on the state of African-American pop culture. A lot of it is subtle; Chappelle is seen wearing shirts with the images of Richard Pryor and Muhammad Ali, Erykah Badu has a vintage Black Panthers button on as she performs. And a lot of it is not; Fred Hampton, Jr., himself the son of a slain Panther leader, takes to the stage, and exhorts the crowd to join him in calling for the release of "political prisoners" like Mumia Abu-Jamal. It makes the film feel a little retro, (What, can't we find idols from this decade?) but then when you think about the images that mainstream pop culture offers African-Americans now, whether it's Jay-Z's consumerist fantasies or the bling-and-champagne banality of Beyonce, you realize that maybe those decades-old images aren't as bad as the alternative. Or, as Dead Prez put it in their performance of the rousing single "Bigger than Hip-Hop," "Would you rather have a Lexus or justice? A dream or some substance? A Beemer, a necklace or ... freedom?"
But you also manage to have fun watching this film, just as Chappelle's obviously having fun making it. Chappelle's able to jump from joke to joke fast and lively, and he's also smart enough to know when to be dumb. He may make lightning-fast references to Mr. T cereal, Willy Wonka and bad John Grisham movies that sail over your head like expertly-hurled boomerangs to come back around and hit you with big laughs, but he can also deliver 'Yo' Momma' jokes with Mos Def on drums as his straight man, tears of laughter and shame at how cheap the material is coursing down his face. And the performances are great: The measure of success for any concert film is how badly it makes you want to get to the record shop, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party succeeds on that level. Credit – or, as the kids say, major props – should go to the concert's musical arranger and conductor, Amir "Questlove" Thompson of The Roots, who leads a crack live band to back performers running the gamut from new-school hip-hop to retro-soul with skill and great chops. Dave Chappelle's Block Party is a fantasy – it's artfully manufactured to look organic, planned to look spontaneous and cost a lot of money to be put on for free – but it's fun and smart and exactly the kind of thing you'd do if you were famous, cool and rich, too.