Dave Chappelle's Block Party Review
Sandwiched between the grander, more attention-grabbing pair of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry’s far quieter, low-key documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party can’t help but feel like a side-project. Indeed, to use the DVD compilation The Work of Michel Gondry (which collected him famed music videos, plus various ads, shorts and doodles) as a comparison point, if Eternal Sunshine and Science represent the flashier likes of his promos for Daft Punk, the Chemical Brothers or Kylie, then Block Party is one of the special features: looser, more irreverent, more indulgent. Certainly, it’s Gondry’s straightest feature to date, a vérité look at Chappelle’s successful attempt to mount a block party in Brooklyn, NY, a feast of hip-hop featuring Mos Def and Talib Kweli, the Roots, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Kanye West, Common and a fleetingly reformed Fugees. Furthermore, it’s really only post-production technology that allows for any gloss: the soundtrack beefed up to an energetic 5.1 mix; the washed out visuals, as seen in the deleted scenes and extended musical numbers, rendered richer and seemingly more expensive.
The irreverent and indulgent aspects manifest themselves in the way Gondry blends the concert itself with the events heading up to it. Essentially Block Party has three strands which are intertwined: scenes of Chappelle in his current home of Dayton, Ohio dishing out free tickets to its residents (who are then followed by Gondry’s cameras in a manner similar to the Depeche Mode fans in D.A. Pennebaker’s 101); rehearsal footage in which Chappelle meets the musicians and Brooklyn locals, fools around and, for want of a better word, conducts rough-shod interviews; and, of course, the main event. As such the former elements, and indeed parts of the latter, find Gondry simply pointing his cameras at the titular host and letting him do as he will.
From a British perspective, such a move proves really quite welcome. Though Chappelle is arguably the biggest stand-up currently operating in the US, he remains little known over here; his most prominent showing to date was perhaps the small role (as a stand-up) he played in Eddie Murphy’s remake of The Nutty Professor, though that was now over a decade ago. As a result Block Party effectively serves as an introduction to his homesy (“old people fucking love me, man!”), relaxed, self-deprecating style. We see him laughing with old folk, riffing with the band, hanging out at Ha Ha Pizza and generally being hugely agreeable.
Of course, Chappelle isn’t going to be the only selling point, especially with that line-up of artists, all from the intelligent, socially/politically conscious side of the hip-hop divide. So how does Block Party hold up as a concert movie? Comparisons to another recent theatrically released (albeit not in the UK) hip-hop movie, Jay-Z’s Fade to Black which documented his “retirement” gig in Madison Square Gardens, prove instructive. In many ways that film could be just as indulgent, peppered as it was with scenes from the making of Jay-Z’s Black Album, yet the overriding sensation was one of extreme gloss, both in terms of the film itself (the opening credits do that whole portentous helicopter-shot-of-New-York-by-night thing) and its content. Here, however, it’s all stripped away: minimal bling, live band shared by the vast majority of the acts, a focus on lyrics as opposed to gratuitous female dancers and posturing. In fact, it’s a great reminder of how enthralling live hip-hop can be: Mos Def and Talib Kweli’s ‘Definition’, the Roots’ ‘You Got Me’, Dead Prez’s intense, yet simple, ‘Bigger Than Hip-Hop’.
Where the film perhaps falls down a little is in its aims to have some kind of significance. A number of artists come with political messages to espouse, and Block Party as a whole does attempt to contain a social edge, yet Gondry’s fondness for jokey, indulgent asides and a lack of true focus means that any such element ultimately gets diffused and ultimately lost amongst it all. Moreover, it also means that Block Party never quite holds together as well as it should – and cohesion, of course, is what unites all the great concert movies, whether they be Monterey Pop, Woodstock, The Last Waltz or Stop Making Sense. That said, if the film does fall short, it still makes for terrific entertainment: great music and some very funny gags, more than enough to make it worth your while.
Presentation-wise Block Party can do no wrong. In its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, with a choice of DD2.0 and DD5.1 soundtracks, it comes across as well as it should. The image is spotless, colours are strong and detail flawless – for all the vérité affectations Gondry still clearly puts a lot into the images and we’re not let down here. Likewise, the soundtracks are equally meaty. Unsurprisingly it’s the DD5.1 which works best, but both are equally fine and demonstrate no noticeable problems. Ultimately, it’s personal preference which will dictate which you go for.
As for extras, the main attractions are likely to be the extended musical numbers, especially as Block Party has a tendency to cut backstage snippets and the like into them. Only four are present, and their sound and visuals are less impressive than in the film, but they’re welcome nonetheless. Elsewhere, we also find a ‘making of’ doc which takes us behind the logistics of mounting the concert and filming it (neither of which are mentioned in the film itself); an 18-minute deleted “scene” which provides more footage from Dayton, Ohio; a look inside the Broken Angel, the building which serves as the concert’s backdrop; and, rounding things off, the theatrical trailer.