“This is the concert I always wanted to see.” That’s how Dave Chappelle introduces his documentary/concert movie entitled “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” The film splits its time between concert footage and documentary footage of Chappelle planning and organizing the concert. “Block Party” was helmed by Michel Gondry, the acclaimed director of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” who is known for his innovative and surreal visual techniques.
Here he employs more of a “cinema verite” style, simply following Chappelle and filming from his perspective. Chappelle’s perspective is for the most part, that of a hip-hop fan yearning to see a concert with artists who are about more than money and Benzes and actually have something to say.
In the fall of 2004 Dave Chappelle put together a concert in Brooklyn that included an emerging Kanye West, the reunion of The Fugees, and collaborations between The Roots, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, and Big Daddy Kane. The film intercuts between the artists performing and Chappelle getting everything prepared for the concert. For those looking for two hours of comedy, be warned, there is just as much music as comedy, if not more. For those who appreciate backpack rap, there is much to enjoy.
During the beginning of the film Chappelle visits a small college near his hometown in Ohio; Central State University. There he invites the school’s marching band to come to the concert in Brooklyn and perform. The band accepts with shouts of excitement, and from then on the band serves as a narrative thread of the film. We follow them, along with several other Ohio locals that Chappelle blessed with “golden tickets,” as they journey by bus to Brooklyn.
Other concert-goers on the bus include the owners of the corner store where Chappelle buys his cigarettes in the mornings, a couple animated teenagers, and a few others who under other circumstances would never find themselves at a rap concert.
The concert is to take place in front of a fascinating building called the “Broken Angel House.” The inhabitants of the house, an older couple celebrating their 24th anniversary, provide some of the film’s funniest moments. They invite Chappelle in for a look around the “broken angel” house, which includes all sorts of animals, including a cheetah and a dog named cat. The lady of the house, a self-proclaimed good witch who plans to live to 400, has a lot to say and seems to captivate Gondry, who spends a lot of time filming her.
The musical highlight of the film is a performance of “Jesus Walks” by Kanye West, John Legend, and the Central State University marching band. The band’s heavy drums provide a dynamic backdrop for Kanye who spits his vocals with the hunger of a man on the cusp of stardom, (this was 2004, before Kanye had truly established himself). Other stand-out performances include Erykah Badu’s “Love of my Life,” a parable about growing up with hip-hop with guest rapper Common back when the two we’re dating.
During the performance Badu’s wig starts flying off, so she just rips it off and keeps singing. She caps off her set by crowd surfing, reinforcing the intimate vibe of the concert. Another notable performance is Dead Prez’s “Hip-Hop,” who rap the second verse acappella. In between songs the audience is treated to a freestyle battle between Chappelle and Mr. T look alike from audience, with the audience member spitting mediocre rhyme prompting Chappelle to start cracking jokes.
During the second half of the film Chappelle visits the kids in the Bed-Stuy elementary school where The Notorious B.I.G. went. Chappelle seems to enjoy connecting with the kids, as he speaks with them and then races one of them down the street. The film ends as the concert ends, with the long-awaited reunion of the Fugees. The crowd goes crazy as Lauryn Hill emerges and starts singing “Killing Me Softly,” a stunning performance and a suitable ending to Dave Chappelle’s funny concert film.