It’s Dave’s party, bitch
Toward the end of this film, there’s a weird little moment that seemed to me to epitomize the appeal of comedian Dave Chappelle. It was a sequence shot during rehearsals for the party, with Chappelle pacing the stage, clutching his microphone and bantering with Mos Def as the rapper sat playing the drums.
“I was just in the men’s room, and I was using the urinal, and this guy at the urinal next to me, well, I didn’t look or nothin’, but I couldn’t help noticing that his penis is really small.”
After a beat: “How small was it, Dave?”
“He was pissin’ on his balls.”
The joke itself is crude in every sense; we’re not talking Oscar Wilde or George Bernard Shaw here. And yet there’s something oddly endearing about Mos Def playing Ed McMahon to Chappelle’s Johnny Carson. Unless profanity is a non-negotiable turnoff, you can’t help smiling, maybe even laughing out loud. Chappelle is like the guy hanging out at the gas station or the bowling alley making wisecracks, or the guy talking back to the screen at a lousy movie. What he has more than anything else is likeability.
It’s on display throughout Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, from the opening scene, when Chappelle, wielding a bullhorn on a Brooklyn street corner, kibbitzes two guys who are trying to get their car started. We see it as Chappelle walks around his hometown in Ohio, handing out party passes to friends, family and a handful of strangers. We see it as he tours the day-care center that will serve as his backstage area, chatting with the director and the kids. And we see it onstage as he introduces the acts in what he calls “the concert I always wanted to see.”
Block Party is actually two films. There’s the event itself, which combined Chappelle’s comedy with hip-hop performances by such big names as Kanye West, the Roots, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Mos Def, Common and a reunion of the Fugees (Lauryn Hill, Pras and Wyclef Jean), plus Chappelle’s efforts to bring the performers together and build the audience for it. That’s one of the two films. The other is director Michel Gondry’s footage documenting it all.
Chappelle’s party looks like it was a lot of fun, and everybody seems to be having a hell of a good time. Gondry’s film, however, gives little evidence of the kind of care that Chappelle put into organizing the party.
Chappelle put on the event in September 2004. A year later, Gondry took a “work in progress” to the Toronto Film Festival. Now, a full 18 months after the party, the finished film is ready for audiences—and it looks like a home video your cousin took when he was drunk. It took Gondry a year-and-a-half to come up with this? Maybe he spent all that time trying to piece together a movie out of what he had and wishing he had used a few more cameras to get better coverage.
Gondry made his name in music videos before becoming a cult figure through his films with writer Charlie Kaufman (Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the script of which earned him and Kaufman an Oscar). It’s odd, then, that Gondry shows so little instinct for a concert documentary. Performances are often riveting but fragmentary; just as Badu or Mos Def are hitting their stride, Gondry cuts to backstage, where other performers are commenting on them. These backstage scenes detract from the performers while adding little to our experience, since most of the comments aren’t terribly articulate or enlightening (with two exceptions from Scott and Chappelle himself).
There are a number of highlights (such as Hill’s soulful version of “Killing Me Softly”), but they seem to have been captured by accident. Gondry seldom if ever shows us a song from beginning to end, and it’s frustrating to have them chopped off while he moves restlessly on to something else. The best concert documentaries make you feel as if you were actually there. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, on the other hand, leaves you with the nagging feeling that the people who were there had a lot more fun than you’re having now.