DVD Review: Dave Chappelle's Block Party (Unrated Widescreen Edition)
by Jonathan Baylis
Published: June 9, 2006
Dave Chappelle and I are the same age. When I was a 17 year old freshman at New York University, and my orientation took us to the now-defunct Boston Comedy Club (yeah, in New York City, so what?) we caught a typical stand-up show featuring a number of local comics and one of them was 17 year old Dave Chappelle. One of the frosh in my group obnoxiously ordered buffalo wings to arrive from a next door joint and they appeared during Dave’s set. Man, Dave went off on that guy. And I remember thinking how off-the-cuff funny he was. His set was rudely interrupted and he switched gears like it was nothing and was still funny and entertaining. He killed! He might’ve been the best stand-up I saw perform during my whole college tenure.
Flash-forward years later and he's one of the most popular comics in America. Chappelle's Show has broken DVD sales records. Chappelle was offered over $50 million to do a 3rd season and walked away on principle when he sensed tinges of greed and racism. This is a guy who not only speaks from his heart, but acts and lives true. So when he decided to gather a powerhouse of talent for a concert to give back to a community that fostered hip-hop culture and invited people from his beloved, small hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio to join in the fun, it wasn't a big surprise to me.
On September 18th, 2004 in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, Dave threw the biggest hip-hop block party of all time. To kick it off, a drumline from Ohio marched their way to the stage, backing up the arrival of Kanye West. Also in attendance were Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots, and the miraculous reunion of The Fugees. Even rap legend Big Daddy Kane makes an appearance. Now, I'm as white as they come and I can't say that hip-hop is my favorite genre of music, but even I recognized most of the talent featured at this amazing show.
“This is the concert I’ve always wanted to see” - Dave Chappelle
The style of this documentary was more old-school verite than slickened contemporary. That is to say the director, Michel Gondry ("Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind") employed a style more Maysles Brothers ("Gimme Shelter") than Errol Morris ("The Fog of War") (both whom I love). We get to see such film-texture stylings as showing the overexposed final frames of a film roll and dirty jump cuts from moment to moment. The doc is somewhat non-linear as we witness the gathering of the Ohio troops and the selection of Brooklyn locations cut between live numbers. Gondry's style, however, is never jarring and almost always engaging.
For someone who is newly exposed to this kind of experience, there's something very cool about watching live hip-hop with real musicians (and not over-produced sampling). The Roots' Amir ?uestlove did a bang-up job of keeping a consistently high quality sound throughout the show as the musical director/arranger of the house band. The excitement I felt reminded me of the first time I watched LL Cool J's Unplugged set. Perhaps my favorite moment in the show is when both Erykah Badu and Jill Scott joined forces for an intense vocal experience.
What Dave Chappelle’s comedy does is present a side that you haven’t seen before on certain issues, often related to race and equality. And he has succeeded in bringing these views to a largely white, college audience. And now he delivers hip-hop musicians that also have something important to say through their music, and hopefully now, to an even wider audience.
Dave and partiers
In addition to extended performances included on the DVD, there are two "making of" docs presented here. The first, entitled "September in Brooklyn: The Making of 'Block Party'" heavily features director Michel Gondry. I was wondering how this little, French dude could get involved with this kind of project. Then I remembered that, like Spike Jonze ("Being John Malkovich") and David Fincher ("Fight Club"), Gondry got his start directing revolutionary music videos for Bjork, White Stripes, Chemical Brothers, Foo Fighters and more. You see a bit more of the process behind the creation of the event itself and it was worth seeing. I was curious to learn more about the Ohio folks Dave invited to the show and the second doc, "Ohio Players" satisfied that interest by getting into more depth about the fun marching band and townies.
If Chappelle nor these musicians aren't your cup of tea, then this doc might not be for you. For fans of Dave and hip-hop culture itself, this is a gem to behold. A-
P.S. This is yet another recent example of a feature director making a doc. The 3rd I've watched recently (after John Landis's "Slasher", and Sydney Pollack's "Sketches of Frank Gehry", which I reviewed.) and I applaud these genre-hopping auteurs.