“It’s a celebration, bitches.” That’s the greeting Dave Chappelle receives upon hitting the rented-out community center serving as the backstage/VIP area for his whimsically assembled block party in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, and while he good-naturedly returns the greeting (referring to his infamous portrayal of Rick James on his now-defunct Chappelle’s Show), it’s possible to make out the trace elements of weariness at having given birth to a pop comedic behemoth, the kind that needs to keep being fed with increased frequency until you inevitably get charged with falling the fuck off, at which point the next comedy icon steals away the zeitgeist for his or her year of cross-cultural ubiquity.
It is entirely possible that this prospect didn’t so much scare Chappelle as piss him off. After all, the guy had paid his dues with sick interest over ten-plus years of relentless comedy club gigging, failed sitcom pilots and thankless film cameos he’d not only earned his success, he’d also earned the privilege of not having to coin a new catch phrase with each episode. He had to suspect his newfound fan base would tolerate nothing less than an improvement on Chappelle’s Show’s scarily brilliant second season, and such unreasonable expectations from frat boys and investment bankers misreading his satire as glancing irreverence could only have detracted from his profound sense of accomplishment that, by the way, netted him a multi-multi-million dollar deal from Comedy Central.
The above is pure speculation, but, hailing from Ohio and having done a bit of time in the stand-up comedy trenches with folks who gigged with Dave back when he was starting out at Wiley’s Comedy Niteclub in Dayton, I know too much about Dave Chappelle to believe that he just callously scrapped his show out of some fit of megalomania. I’m also pretty sure he didn’t go crazy (or crazier than he is twenty-four/seven). And I’m absolutely convinced that what we’re witness to in the Michel Gondry-directed Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is the comic’s attempt to combat the disorienting and dismaying effects of mainstream success by convening an entertainment extravaganza the likes of which his kind of people would dig.
True, the majority of his kind of people happen to be African-American, but Chappelle does his best early on in the film to involve some regular white folk in the shindig by handing out a few of his “Golden Tickets” to the employees at his local Yellow Springs carryout where he buys cigarettes every morning. They’re a bit flummoxed by the whole thing (one of the women wonders at what she should wear to a hip-hop show, and regrets not having a thong), but they adventurously go along for the chartered bus ride unfortunately, Gondry loses sight of them once the production shifts to Brooklyn.
Gondry does a much better job keeping track of the Central State University marching band that Chappelle recruits to perform in an unclear capacity for the show though they never make it to the stage, they do get to back Kanye West briefly on “Jesus Walks” and hobnob backstage with a full-of-himself Wyclef Jean, who extols the virtues of education to bunch of kids already in college. Oh, well.
While the concept of whisking Midwesterners off to Bed-Stuy may not amount to much in execution, simply filming Dave Chappelle interacting with a racially diverse group of Ohioans, a couple of wacky, champagne swilling Brooklynites and the various musicians enlisted for the show, many of whom are friends in the first place, pays hugely entertaining dividends. He’s particularly great when riffing off of the concert’s default backing band, which is, essentially, The Roots with a horn section. Though he comes from a different generation, Chappelle has an old-school comic’s reflexes, and he uses the musicians to hone his material. He also amuses the hell out of The Roots’ ?uestlove Thompson, who notes Chappelle’s habit of noodling through Thelonious Monk’s “Round Midnight” whenever he sits down at a piano – that, and “Misty”, are apparently the only two songs in his repertoire. Chappelle later praises Monk’s offbeat timing as perfect for stand-up comedy it certainly suits Chappelle’s marvelous behind-the-beat delivery.
But the real star of the film, as Chappelle undoubtedly wanted it, is the music, and the film throbs ecstatically to the insistent rhythms of Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, The Roots, Dead Prez and Kanye West, with a few slow jam reprieves from alternative R&B queens Erykah Badu (she of the blowout and blow-off afro) and Jill Scott. Though these are the kinds of hip-hop acts with a little more on their minds than sipping Cristal and tappin’ that ass (not that there’s anything wrong with that), they manage to smuggle in a little social conscience without bringing down the party. Highlights include Talib and Mos reuniting for “Definition”, Dead Prez killing it with “Hip-Hop” and The Roots bringing out East Coast rap legends Kool G. Rap (the most underrated emcee in the history of the genre) and a heavier-than-usual Big Daddy Kane for “Boom”. To his credit, Gondry doesn’t try to enforce his style on a form of music with which he’s not typically associated instead, he sticks with traditional setups and follows the lead of the musicians, all of whom seem to be having the time of their life despite the fairly constant downpour of rain.
The film builds to the final act of the night, which was quite a big deal at the time. Lauryn Hill had initially been scheduled to close the show, but, according to Chappelle, her label refused to let her perform any of her solo material for the movie. They got around this potential disappointment by rounding up Wyclef and Pras, and having the three perform as The Fugees for the first time in several years, which is a big deal even if you don’t like The Fugees. That said, non-fans must endure the Wyclef and Pras orbiting around the genuinely talented Hill for most of the set, though they at least have the good sense to let her handle “Killing Me Softly with His Song” a cappella for a few verses before jumping in and ruining the song with their lyrical hokum.
Even with that anticlimax, you leave the film in a completely euphoric state, feeling not regret for Chappelle’s disappearing act, but hope that this mélange of good music and good times soothes his soul, too. Some artists make their friends and family miserable selfishly demanding success on their own terms. The best thing about Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is that it accurately depicts him as a guy sauntering through life – and Dave is the clown prince of saunter – in search of spiritual contentment and, if possible, a little social justice. And he’s smart enough to know that, if he can’t live with himself, he won’t come close to finding either.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party opens nationwide Friday, March 3rd.
Dave Chappelle’s Block Party opens nationwide Friday, March 3rd.