Sunday, October 13, 2013

Dave Chappelle's Block Party - 2005

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" - 2005
Dir. by Michel Gondry - 1 hr. 43 min.

Official Trailer

by Clayton Hollifield

Documentary films can be a strange beast - often they're filmed to document something that's happening that might not be getting the attention it ought to.  "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" is a different kind of film; the event was created in order to make a film about it.  That's surely not the only purpose behind "Block Party," those are myriad.  It's a notable film because, firstly, the music is fantastic, and also because it's the sort of thing that maybe only Dave Chappelle could pull off at this specific point in time, because of his level of fame and because of the musicians that he organically knew.  The result is a snapshot of a time when there was a lot of goodwill between a group of musicians, and when Chappelle wanted to do something cool for people, and could pull it off.

There's not much purpose talking about the plot here; "Block Party" is comprised of three elements.  There's the musical performances, there's interviews and rehearsal footage, and there's the times where Chappelle is wandering around, just talking to people.  How much you enjoy the music might depend on how much you enjoy the particular acts featured.  And part of that will depend on how you view rap music, something that Chappelle addresses a couple of times.  One local Brooklyn woman says that she doesn't enjoy it because of the foul language, which seems like a lame surface stereotype of rap music (and particularly of some of the acts included in the film), but when the interview butts up against Chappelle swearing freely during comedy bits (as well as unedited musical performances), it becomes a bigger criticism.  Aside from dead prez and a very early Kanye West, none of the musical acts in this lineup are what you'd consider confrontational or hardcore (I mean, we're talking about acts like the Fugees, whose biggest hit was a reworking of a Roberta Flack song, the Roots, who are now Jimmy Fallon's late-night house band, and Erykah Badu - this is an eclectic and somewhat artsy batch of musicians).  

But director Michel Gondry lets the woman raise the point, and doesn't try to ease up on the harsh language afterwards to try and make the woman look silly.  The question hangs in the air; is this merely a cultural divide, artists either not having the awareness of what their actions look like or just not caring that they're alienating people, or is the hypersensitivity of language some sort of coded racist criticism towards a surface detail of urban black music?  This might seem like a minor detail to a performance film, but it's an important one.  There's no real attempt to provide a concrete answer, and I don't think there's an easy one available.  I suspect one of the reasons that so many artists signed on for this film is that it was conceived as a genuine attempt to unite people, to reach out through music to provide something memorable and fun for people that might not get that opportunity often.  But even so, every piece of art is not for everyone, and sometimes you just can't get past whatever resistance has already been established.

A big part of the charm of "Block Party" is that the cool moments keep popping up.  There are musical moments that are meaningful, like the Fugees re-uniting to headline the whole she-bang (it was just supposed to be Lauryn Hill, but her record label refused to clear her solo songs for use in the movie, so she figured out a work-around).  The Fugees don't even seem to get along here; there's a halting, carefully-worded rehearsal interview with all three, where all three members are careful not to say anything that might scuttle the next day's performance.  But when they take the stage, it's magical, and it's easy to see why fans are frustrated with their inactivity.  There are also small moments, like seeing Chappelle talking with area kids at a youth center, or wandering through a giant, bizarre house with it's owners, that are spell-binding.  But the other big cool moment involves Chappellle coming across a college marching band in his hometown in central Ohio, and decided to invite them to come to the Brooklyn show.  It's touch-and-go, but the charter buses get paid for and everything works out, and the band gets to perform "Jesus Walks" with Kanye West (!).  

"Dave Chappelle's Block Party" captures a moment where a lot of things seemed possible, a moment of optimism and enthusiasm and unity.  It was supposed to be a feel-good event, and it certainly comes off that way.  But watching this film now, it's frustrating to know what would be in store for some of the people involved, particularly the two central figures.  This was kind of Chappelle's last hurrah before retreating (some day, someone's going to write a book about Chappelle's last ten years, and it's going to be required reading), and you could arguably say the same thing about Lauryn Hill, except she'd already retreated at the point in time when this film was made, and is only now hesitantly popping her head back up, and not entirely because she wants to.  But the music is top-notch, the film flies by, and if this isn't quite "Wattstax," it's a worthwhile snapshot of a musical scene, with an appreciative audience enjoying a good time.  

4 / 5 - TV

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