In September 2004, wildly popular comedian Dave Chappelle took his time and money to put together a block party for Brooklyn, New York. To entertain the crowds, he invited hip-hop luminaries such as Kanye West, The Roots, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Dead Prez, Common, and, after pleasing some higher power, he also managed to get The Fugees to reunite for this special day. "Block Party" is the documentary covering the invites, the reasoning, and the spectacle.
"Block Party" is a "Wattstax" influenced celebration of life, music, and harmony, with Chappelle acting as the guide during this event as he witnesses his dream come to life. The film was shot in the sweet spot of Chappelle's career: right after "I'm Rick James, bitch!" made him an object of endearment to mouthbreathing white college kids everywhere, and right before fame and pressure robbed him (and his fans) of his spirit. "Block Party" reflects the spring in Chappelle's step, with the comedian surrounding himself with his musical heroes, community leaders, and basking in the glow of the people who love him. It's great to see him happy.
The film is broken up into two major sections: the first presents Chappelle trolling the streets of Dayton, Ohio (his hometown), looking for random people to invite to the party. It's quite a collection of citizens he finds, ranging from two golf loving African-American teenagers fresh from an incident of racism to a docile middle-aged Caucasian convenience store owner, who isn't sure what to wear to the "rap concert." Distributing golden tickets to the lucky, Chappelle offers to bus these folks in, put them up in a hotel, and allow them free run during the show. Stumbling across the Central State University marching band during his travels, Chappelle brings these excited musicians along as well, adding to the eclectic mix of partygoers.
Back in New York, Chappelle tours the neighborhood, meeting the eccentric owners of a dilapidated church nearby, and the day care center that long ago provided shelter to Biggie Smalls. Here Chappelle brings to light the feelings of small town accomplishments, noting that major rap stars were born mere blocks away from the ramshackle block party locale. While overridingly a musical comedy concert film, there is a strong theme of positive African-American unity and empowerment flowing throughout the movie, warmly depicted in Chappelle's excitement for the event and his candid thoughts on the authenticity of the performers.
The rest of the film features the musical performances, and most are exceptionally impressive. The sheer list of highlights in "Block Party" is long, but watching Badu lose her gigantic afro wig to a strong gust of wind (unleashing the singer's closely-guarded concert energy), her uneasy collaboration with powerhouse Jill Scott, and the white-hot electricity of seeing Pras, Lauryn Hill, and Wyclef Jean back on stage together stand out as particularly potent memories of the day. The performances are intercut with the rest of the events and preparations, which might upset concert purists, but the editing further drives home the festival atmosphere and the absolute power of this all-star lineup.
Weaving in and out of the music is Chappelle, keeping the crowd entertained with some blues-infused stand-up and hilarious audience interaction. If you already like Chappelle's sense of humor, there's no reason to stop laughing with him here.
Chappelle's partner in crime for this documentary is Michel Gondry, the wizard of quirk behind "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "Human Nature." While celebrated for his camera tricks, Gondry wisely pulls back with "Block Party," insisting the camera act as a party guest with outrageous access. The director also shoots a majority of the movie on film (a rare feat for documentaries these days), which brings out the homespun feel of outdoor festivity that Chappelle is searching for, and he nails the celebratory mood perfectly. "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is an overwhelmingly delightful and energetic creation, welcoming the audience to come join the fun. It's impossible to resist the invitation.
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