A lightning rod for controversy since he hit the scene, comedian-turned-pop-culture-icon Dave Chappelle has forever been a star on his own terms. This was never more clear than, in 2005, he abruptly left his now legendary Comedy Central show, only to leave without any notice heading to Africa for some apparently much needed rest and relaxation. Now, with a bit of time and space from silly American consumerism under his belt, he’s back with a tour, and what would be better to continue this rise back into the spotlight then a new home video release of yet another exciting bit of pop culture that may very well be one of the best things to ever come from the mind of Dave Chappelle.
In September of 2004, just months prior to his leaving his show, Chappelle took to the Clinton Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY, to host what is the dream block party for just about anyone with a brain or an interest in hip hop culture. With Michel Gondry behind the camera, what follows is a breathtaking concert film that is interested in both the music that is being put on the stage, as well as the world that its taking place in.
But first, that music, it’s absolutely to die for.
The first thing most people will notice when taking a look at the masterpiece that is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, is the music and the lineup that is taking the stage here. With performances the likes of Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Mos Def, The Roots, Kanye West and most notably the reunion of beloved group The Fugees, the performances here are breathtakingly shot, energetic and as intimate for home viewers as they are, presumably, those in the actual audience, and the interviews with those performing that Gondry gets are just as interesting. All shot with beautiful photography and a playfulness that isn’t rare when talking about films from Michel Gondry.
But that in and of itself makes this film a masterpiece. Gondry, at the behest of seemingly no one other than himself, shines his camera just as lovingly on the man getting this event together, and in turn taking his energy and turning this film into something entirely its own. Always a man adverse to doing things with big budgets, backed by big commerce and having multiple cooks in his kitchen, we follow Chappelle as he not only gets the likes of Kanye West and The Roots to join his block party, but also an Ohio marching band, and other normal people whose lives are ostensibly changed by meeting him. With a raw sense of energy and some really fantastic jokes and gags, the film is as deft a meditation on humanism and the raw power of one enigmatic comedian’s energy.
However, again, the performances are the star here. As with any great concert film (say, Gimme Shelter), the performances take center stage. While the names are big to hip hop heads and alternative music hounds, they also hint at just what type of artist the man whose name is in the title. A vocal pop culture revolutionary in many ways, Chappelle is not only a fan of hip hop, but hip hop with actual, palpable and often times controversial meaning. A group like Dead Prez or even Black Star would never get the time of day on network TV, but be it here or on his TV series, Chappelle would always give the last segment of his show to truly inspired musical performances from rap acts that have more than just braggadocios normalcy to spit out of their mouths. Here, the performances are lively, vibrantly shot and impossible not to stand up, and get utterly enthralled, just like you were front row this day in Brooklyn.
Currently only available on DVD (and for cheap too), the film is more than deserving of a new Blu-ray upgrade, preferably from The Criterion Collection. The DVD is relatively easy to find, but it doesn’t really quite do this film justice. It’s a gorgeous film that looks a tad flat on DVD (the film looked far greater on the big screen), and doesn’t have much in the way of features. There is a making of featurette, extended musical performances and a few other small bits, but it’s far too small a release. With Chappelle now back in the spotlight, one would hope to get a commentary track from him here, a look back at the making of the film, some interviews catching up with those he chatted with and some other featurettes. However, the one thing any music fan would like to see from this type of release would be a look at the making of the film from their point of view. Grab a close friend of Chappelle’s like Questlove from The Roots or Mos Def, and chat with them for a while, and you’ll have a must watch supplement. Maybe a lengthy chat between one of them and Chappelle? Think the Noah Baumbach and Brian De Palma interview on the Blow Up Blu-ray.
All in all, while the film itself may seem light and fluffy, it is no less important and powerful a film and an absolutely raucous concert picture. Full of a sense of life and vitality most films have no interest in mining, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a forgotten masterpiece that you may not think about or may not have seen, but is more than worthy of much more and a much deeper discussion.