Imagine you were a marginally successful comedian, one who had spent 10 years touring clubs and taking bit movie parts for a living. Suddenly, you got a big break and hit a grand slam, catapulting your name to household status with both mainstream appeal and real street cred. What would you do with this fame, fortune, and success?
If you had any sense of decency, you'd throw yourself a big party.
On a rainy day in the summer of 2004, fresh off his big payday from Comedy Central, Dave Chappelle cordoned off a street in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, and assembled "the concert I always wanted to see," featuring all the hip-hop acts your friends from grad school like. Article continues below
The free show, held at a location kept secret until the last minute, may be smaller than, say, Garth Brooks in Central Park, but it springs alive from the flesh of its community. Common, Grammy favorite Kanye West, live band hip-hop pioneers the Roots, radicals Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, a reunited Blackstar (Mos Def and Talib Kweli), and an unthinkably reunited Fugees (Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, and Pras) join the festivities with energizing songs of love and justice.
In the able hands of director Michel Gondry, who was crafting bitchin' videos for Bjork, Beck, Radiohead, and the White Stripes before he made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, this is no MTV Awards Show. Its relentlessly entertaining 100 minutes jump among clips of the show, the rehearsals and artist interviews, and Chappelle interacting with the denizens of Brooklyn and his Ohio hometown. Shot by multiple documentary units, the film feels simultaneously professional and DIY, commencing with the first shot, in which two older men try to restart a car that's broken down in front of Chappelle's opening credits location.
While Block Party reveals little of the man who walked away from that big Comedy Central paycheck, Chappelle is a generous and engaging party host. He wanders around his childhood hometown in Ohio distributing "golden tickets" to the show – including a long bus ride – to everyone he meets, from a pair of charming golfing teens to a middle-aged white lady at the local market who has no idea "what to wear to a rap party." He also runs into the marching band from historically black Central State University, which literally jump for joy when their director informs them they'll be traveling to NYC to play "Jesus Walks" with Kanye.
The concert itself reflects its primary sponsor in its fun and unpretentiousness. Chappelle is, unsurprisingly for those who've seen his show, the anti-P. Diddy. No dress code, no Cristal, the only requirement is fun. And the music footage – rappers and singers backed by a house band starring the Roots' tireless ?uestlove on the skins – is uniformly explosive, from the aforementioned Kanye performance, to Dead Prez's rage-bomb "Turn Off the Radio," to Scott and Badu's abstract duet on "You Know That You Got Me," to Hill's glassy-eyed rendition of "Killing Me Softly," to the triumphant return of Big Daddy Kane with the Roots. Anyone with a microgram of feel for real hip-hop – the brand created by men and women of strong minds and pure souls, the brand devoid of guns and booty and platinum grills – may find themselves irresistibly drawn to a record store when the credits roll, if only for the soundtrack.
And Chappelle's jokey breaks between sets – in which he goofs around with the band, does a dirty Borscht Belt-style bit with Mos Def on drums, and freestyle battles an audience member who looks like Mr. T – are hilarious enough to make you forget about how much that popcorn and Coke cost.
But it's the warm and mature offstage scenes that give Block Party its sense of purpose. The free show transcends mere entertainment, becoming a celebration of a misunderstood culture, and a platform for acts of spiritual love for community. Late in the movie, Wyclef Jean beefs with some of the marching band, playing a deeply moving segment from "(If I Was the) President" on keyboards, and urging the kids rise above easy blame and self-pity. It's a far cry from the real Mr. T telling kids to drink their milk, and brief as it is, you can't help but sense that Wyclef has touched the band geeks for the better.
With Comedy Central in the process of repackaging the last few sketches that Chappelle filmed as "Season 3 of Chappelle's Show," you'd be forgiven for assuming a movie titled Dave Chappelle's Block Party smelled like the worst kind of Hollywood opportunism. But it's the opposite, a winningly entertaining labor of love that also happens to be A+ work by everyone involved. As the concert ends, Chappelle confides with the day care center principal, "This is the best thing I've done in my career."