Jacob Farley digs back into the “small masterpiece” that is Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. Deal with it.
The movie opens with two older men trying to fix a car sitting on the curb. One is tinkering under the hood, the other sits in the driver’s seat and hits the starter when commanded. Eventually, someone wanders up behind them and starts watching. Said someone happens to be internationally famous comedian Dave Chappelle, but these men don’t seem terribly impressed by that fact. Dave watches them work on the car for a moment, turns and signals to someone off-camera, then returns to watching the men work on the car. A marching band begins playing. The music gets increasingly closer, more cacophonous and the two men begin having difficulty hearing each other. Helpfully, Dave (who has been largely silent up to this point) reveals that he has been carrying a megaphone this whole time and begins relaying their communication back and forth over the music, to the men’s growing annoyance. This opening scene is the whole movie in a nutshell—a small slice of regular life, into which Dave Chappelle injects a little music and a little humor. There’s no real punchline in the scene because life doesn’t have a punchline—the implicit argument in the movie is that the best thing we can do for each other is to try and make each other laugh a little and to try and make each other dance a little.
If you want to have a good time, watch Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.
Okay, this wouldn’t be much of a retrospective if I just left it at that, so I suppose I should elaborate.
On August 4th of 2004, Dave Chappelle signed a $50 million contract with Comedy Central for a new season of his then-titanic hit Chappelle’s Show. A little over a month later, on September 18th of 2004, Dave Chappelle threw a huge block party in Brooklyn featuring some of the biggest and best names in hip-hop and R&B. If you knew where it was, and you could get there, you were welcome. No charge. It was, fundamentally, just a really, really cool thing to do.
In addition to the day of the show itself, the movie follows Dave over the weeks leading up to the concert as he connects with the musicians and roams Ohio and New York inviting people to his show. Dave (who lives in Yellow Springs, Ohio) wanders his hometown and offers pretty much everyone he comes into contact with, white and black, young and old, a free bus ride and hotel stay in New York City to attend his concert. Many people take him up on his offer. (One older white man politely declines, explaining that it’s not a matter of liking or disliking rap music, it’s that he no longer hears well enough to understand the words.) Dave purposefully seeks out Ohio residents who wouldn’t normally ever attend a hip-hop concert, because he wants them to have the opportunity to experience something new to them, something that he loves deeply. He wants to share. That generosity of spirit infuses the whole film and I think, in a lot of ways, is fundamental to Dave’s massive success in the early 2000s, and his subsequent retreat from public life.
The movie never explicitly states this, but it seems clear watching Dave that he’s not terribly comfortable with the idea of being a rich star. He likes people and he doesn’t like anything that puts a wall between him and other folks. Despite that, he’s also clearly got…“it.” The Elvis. That mysterious, ineffable, je ne sais quoi that can make someone into the life of every party. Being famous doesn’t interest him as much as being entertaining interests him. Being the truest Dave Chappelle that Dave Chappelle can be is what interests him. It’s refreshing, really.
So the movie continues on, interspersing footage from the concert with footage from rehearsals, preparations, and the general hanging around that accompanies the process of putting up a big show. Plot-wise, there’s not much else to it, beyond following the concert and musicians themselves.
Oh. The musicians. I should take a moment to outline the truly, incredibly unbelievable lineup for this show. You’ve got The Roots Crew. You’ve got Dead Prez. You’ve got Mos Def and Talib Kweli. You’ve got Jill Scott, Common, Erykah Badu, and Kanye West (yes, Yeezus himself!), not to mention the titanic reunion of the Fugees. Hanging around the edges of all this are folks like John Legend, A-Trak, and Big Daddy Kane, not to mention the entire Ohio Central State marching band. It is an absolute murderer’s row of talent, and every music scene is on point, In fact, if there’s a complaint to be made about the film, it’s that occasionally Michel Gondry (oh yeah, also this was directed by the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind guy) doesn’t allow songs to play out fully. He does, however, do an excellent job of weaving the music into footage of the actual concert and mixing it with the aforementioned footage of people just hanging around doing other stuff. The balance he strikes somehow makes the performances feel even more alive when juxtaposed against images of people going about day-to-day business. Music is life and life is music and they pulse and twine together throughout.
I saw this movie when it first came out and I left the theater walking on air. Rewatching it for this review, I felt the same way. Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is a small masterpiece, not necessarily because it’s well-made (though it is that), but because it perfectly captures an ephemeral moment in time when a bunch of cool people came together to do a cool thing. It’s a movie that makes you feel happier after you watch it. Why not soak it in?
There is so much other fun stuff that happens in this movie that it’s basically impossible to catalogue it all, but let’s try.
- Kanye, tragically, is the only major headliner at the show to not get any interview segments. I had actually forgotten he was in this until I rewatched it, and it would have been fascinating to see him in a candid environment 12 years ago. He had just released The College Dropout and was well on his way to stardom, but he wasn’t yet KANYE. You can see it in the footage of him here, though—he knows. He feels the future spooling out in front of him, and he is absolutely electric in his performance segment. I am a Kanye fan. Deal with it. [sunglasses drop onto my face]
- There are some brilliant edits in the movie. My favorite is Dave performing a little routine for the crowd which he and Mos Def had worked out, and when the punchline comes, it’s given after a smash cut to the rehearsal the night before. It’s a wonderful, lively touch.
- There is a great moment where Dave is walking around a Salvation Army, looking for couches to put in the artist lounge during the concert. He sees an old piano and, in delight, sits down and plays Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight,” while ?uestlove explains that Dave does not read music. He doesn’t really play the piano either, really, it’s just that Dave loves the song “’Round Midnight” so much that he just…decided to learn how to play it. Tell me that’s not wonderful.
- The joy in the faces of all the kids from the Ohio Central State marching band when they’re told (out of nowhere) that they have been invited to play at the concert in New York City is amazing.
- The movie occasionally also follows two kids from Ohio who Dave invites. At one point they stand on the roof of a building and enthuse about how now they finally feel like they’re in New York City, because people are always standing on rooftops in movies set in New York.
- Lil’ Cease gives a brief but fascinating history of the early days of New York hip-hop.
- The Fugees reunion is the climax of the film, and Dave presents it beautifully. He pulls a classic bait-and-switch on the audience, telling them that they had really wanted Lauryn Hill to be able to close the show out, but her record contract wouldn’t allow her to play a free concert. He lets the audience express disappointment for juuuust a moment before dropping the bomb that, instead, she just decided to get the Fugees back together for y’all instead. The crowd goes nuts.
- Mos Def is the coolest cat around. Please be in more things, Mos. I need it.
- Wait for a day when you’re kind of down in the dumps and put on Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. In an hour and a half, you’re gonna feel better.