The Fugees (Lauryn Hill, Wyclef Jean, Pras)
The Roots (James ‘Kamal’ Gray, Fred Hampton Jr, Leonard ‘Hub’ Hubbard, Ahmir-Khalib Thompson AKA ?uestlove)
Big Daddy Kane
Kool G. Rap
Directed by Michel Gondry
More than just a comedy concert film or a music documentary, “Block Party” is a great look into the mind of a comedian, captured at the height of his success, and at the last time in his career where he could pull off an event like this one.
In September 2004, comedian David Chappelle decided to hold an all-day concert in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, featuring some of his friends like Mos Def, Kanye West, Common and favorite acts like the Dead Prez and The Fugees.
Before watching this combination documentary and concert film, I wasn’t much of a Dave Chappelle fan, and I really had know idea why everyone was making such a big deal about him. I walked away from this movie with a newfound respect for him, not only as a comedian, but also as a person, and I have an even greater respect for director Michel Gondry for assembling this hodge-podge of material into a cohesive film unlike any other.
The film spends a lot of time setting up the premise behind the all-day concert, and showing Dave Chappelle’s preparations, walking around his hometown of Dayton, Ohio while handing out golden tickets to anyone he meets. He even commissions two buses from the university marching band, bringing them along for the ride and giving them a chance to jam with Kanye West during his performance of “Jesus Walks.”
Those expecting the type of skits and spoofs Chappelle has made famous on his television show may be slightly put out by how few comedy bits there are in the movie, and this really isn’t the type of comedy concert film like those made famous by Richard Pryor or Eddie Murphy. Instead, it’s documentation of this all-day concert made of Chappelle’s friends and musical collaborators, but as host of the event, Chappelle is given plenty of chances to clown around both onstage and off.
The thing is that you get to see the real Dave, and he is very funny, when he’s just adlibbing or hanging out with various inhabitants of the Brooklyn community where the concert is being held.
Chappelle’s taste in music has to be respected, because he doesn’t cowtow to the corporate world of music, instead going with acts and people he likes. The musical acts are all really good as Chappelle recreates the legendary Wetlands jam nights with The Roots acting as back-up band to artists like Kanye West, Erykah Badhu, Mos Def, Common and Jill Scott, mixing hip-hop with R ‘n’ B and rock. Still, the act that most impressed me were rappers Dead Prez, whose pointed political and racial messages bring the type of energy to the show that reminds me of Public Enemy in their heyday. There’s also a surprise appearance by Big Daddy Kane, and a bit of serious political commentary in play later in the show. There are just as many great moments behind the scenes as there are on stage, as Gondry’s cameras are there to capture candid and frank interviews with the performers.
It’s hard not to get somewhat emotional when the Fugees reunite on stage, even if you know it’s coming, especially if you’re at all familiar with what led to the break-up between Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill. Of course, they do “Killing Me Softly” but it’s so much more poignant when they performed it back in their heyday. Wyclef even gets a nice moment with the bussed-in college students to talk with them about the future and how they can get past the struggles they’re bound to face.
Despite his growing success, things had yet to get out-of-control for Chappelle by this point, and he really comes across well, being down-to-earth, easily approachable and quite sane. The only bad thing about the movie is the amount of time spent with the residents of Dayton, Ohio, who tend to ham it up for the camera whenever they’re interviewed and are probably the only part of the movie that can be accused of not “keepin’ it real.”
The Bottom Line:
“Block Party” is an amazing achievement, not only for the impressive array of artists and musicians assembled by Chappelle, but also because it becomes an indelible snapshot of a period of time when Chappelle was on the cusp of becoming a mega-star. Of course, Chappelle’s fans will appreciate this innovative concert film for his humor, but those who aren’t fans of his work might be able to walk away with greater appreciation for what makes him such a beloved personality.