A film review by Craig J. Koban

DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY j
½ 

2006, R, 100 mins.

Featuring:

Dave Chappelle /  Mos Def /  Erykah Badu /  Lauryn Hill /  Kanye West /  Talib Kweli /  Dead Prez /  Jill Scott /  the Roots /  the Fugees /  Bilal

Directed by Michel Gondry / Written by Dave Chappelle

I will start this review with a rather pointed and candid admission on my part:

I have never liked Hip Hop.  Never have, never will

As a matter of fact, I hate Hip Hop.  I find it vile, dangerously oppressive, grungy, unsavory, and largely inappropriate – especially in terms of its content, tone, and overall messages.  When I see the type of pervasive influence that it has on our North American youth, it somewhat unsettles me.   

Okay, on the brighter side, I have another admission to make:  I like Dave Chappelle an awful lot.  He has a zany, capricious, and daft comic energy that he brings to his stand-up work, not to mention that he demonstrates a respectable amount of subtle intelligence and quick wit with his material.  Yes, oftentimes his work is laced with the type of four and twelve letter expletives that would certainly make any moral conservative run like mad.  His material is most decidedly blue and – like Hip Hop – it should not necessarily be digested by anyone younger than 18.  However, there is no denying that Chappelle is a fairly pleasant and likable chap.   His comedy has a rough and foul-tongued edge, but underneath it all it’s not altogether mean spirited, harsh or exploitive.  You gain the impression that all he wants to do – when all is said and done – is make people laugh.   

Having said all of this, watching the new documentary - DAVE CHAPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY - was a real challenge for me.  It had two divergent elements that kept gnawing away at me for attention and acceptance.  One of these key elements that it is wall-to-wall with Hip Hop music, thus, my ability to emotionally buy into the material was stretched to the max.  Yet, on the other hand, the documentary also focuses on Chappelle himself and it features his penchant for silly, off-the-wall, by-the-seat-of-your-pants comedy while framing that in a story of how he tried to throw a big Hip Hop concert in the middle of Brooklyn.  When Chappelle is on stage and behind the camera, the film is marginally engaging.  When he is not and the Hip Hop flares up, I grew incredibly distracted by my own inherent boredom.   

Now, there is obviously a huge fan base and market for both Hip Hop and Chappelle’s brand for making people laugh long and hard.  I would also go as far to say that there have been films with subject matters that I have not held in high moral regard that have made for memorable entertainments.  Just because some movies are about things I despise does not preclude that their overall effectiveness as successful films should be negligible.  No, the problem with DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY is that –when placed in comparison with other rockumentaries and comedic concert documentaries – it falls seriously short of par for the course.  

The film commits remorseless sins that all bad documentaries never should – it’s lifeless, inert, and utterly disorganized.  On top of that, it never achieves what great documentaries always do – giving us intimate insights and revelations behind the people and places it tries to present.  After leaving BLOCK PARTY I reaffirmed two things that I already knew before I went in – I loathe Hip Hop and I really like Dave Chappelle.   The fact that the film meanders around aimlessly and never seems to have the time to comment on Chappelle, his ideas about comedy, or even about the nature of music leads me to conclude that BLOCK PARTY is a pedestrian film-going experience. 

I will give Chappelle credit for one thing and that is – beyond his comedic skills – the guy sure knows what he wants in a party and how he wants to throw a party.  The basic crux of BLOCK PARTY is this:  In 2004 Chappelle had a sudden burst of inspiration to throw a rap and comedy concert in Brooklyn (the where’s and when’s would be kept a tightly kept secret to avoid a scene that could easily get way, way out of hand).  Now, why the sudden inspiration to do this?  Well, for starters, maybe it had something to do with the fact that he was suffering from some sort of existentialist funk in terms of battling with his identity.  Timing may also have something to do with it.  Or maybe money.

The concert was held in September 18, 2004.  Many of you may know that in the previous month he signed a ridiculously lucrative contract for $50 million to be with Comedy Central.  That is a lot of loot.  Perhaps – as many industry pundits would like to believe – throwing a block party and inviting people from the streets as special VIPs was his way of making amends with his newly found wealth and super star status.  I mean, it’s really, really difficult to use your status as a black comedian with an urban, ghetto past as a benchmark for your comedy when you make more money in one contract than thousands in the ghetto will make in a year combined.  Furthermore, maybe this was Chappelle’s desire to reconnect with people whom he feared he would not be able to connect with as he climbed the celebrity ladder of prestige.  There are many celebrities who claim that they came from the streets and still hold close ties to their past lives, which is hogwash (ahem, J Lo).  Yet, the one good thing about Chappelle and BLOCK PARTY is that – despite his ever-increasing celeb credit – you feel like he still has strong ties to his past. 

Chappelle – aside from being a hilarious stand-up comic – also seems like a good, decent man.  As the film opens he is shown handing out complimentary tickets to the concert to…well…just about anyone.  One set of black youths are given a set of tickets that – get this – are good for the concert, the bus ride there and back, a hotel room, food, and admission to the concert.  However, Chappelle does not narrowly play a race game with handing out his freebies.  There is a cute little moment where he hands a ticket to a nice old white lady who happens to run a cigarette shop where he likes to shop.  She very politely declines.  He goes to great lengths to invite whomever he comes across, regardless of ethnic background. At one point he seems so jubilant to get as many people to his party as possible that he invites the entire Central State Marching Band.   

These moments in the film are what I appreciated the most.  The point of these scenes are simple: (a) Chappelle can’t be discredited as a good man (the fact that he is fitting the bill for the concert and is giving out free tickets to a lot of people testifies to that), and (b) the fact that he asks just about everyone to attend is also commendable.  He envisions this concert to be inclusive, for whites, blacks, Hispanics, young people, old people…you name it.  However, the film seems to sidestep some of these peoples’ reaction to the concert itself.  Yes, Chappelle is nice to invite some laid back, middle aged white women, but the film never feels the need to get their reactions after the fact.  I am sure these ladies were flattered by the invitation, but did they honestly enjoy hours of music where the N-bomb is used incessantly and variations of the most colorful and scatological words are imbued in the song lyrics every ninth or tenth word? 

The concert goes by a bit roughly, but it does not matter to those in attendance.  They are greeted with some comic interludes with Chappelle (which occupy too little of the film) spliced in between all of the Hip Hop.  It sure is a huge concert bill.  On top of Chappelle’s shenanigans, we get to see the likes of Mos Def, Erykah Bada, Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Kill Scott, The Roots, Bilal, and Lauryn Hill.  Again, I simply did not get into the music of the film, but I am willing to concede that I do like some of the men behind the music.  I also think that some rappers - like Andre 3000, Ludicrous, and Mos Def to name a few - are very respectable actors.  Mos Def was effective in the underrated 16 BLOCKS, and his back stage persona is absolutely nothing like his on-screen visage in that film.  If anything, hearing Def’s rants and candor made me realize what a gifted performance he gave in that film. 

Despite having some key ingredients to make for an invigorating documentary, BLOCK PARTY really sluggishly stalls instead of speeding forward with competence.  It’s not the film’s music that are its shortcomings, but rather the film's lack of focus and inspiration to transport us and speak out on issues.  The whole film gets distracted too many times when it should command our attention.  It was directed by Michel Gondry, who has made some truly great films (his ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was high on my list for 2004’s best cinematic achievements), yet here he is a failure as a documentarian. 

The problem is that he is a neutral, passive, and uninvolved voice in the film.  To be sure, inspiration can be achieved by allowing the camera to rest idly while letting the people in front of it do most of the work.  Yet, what about investigating these personas more?  I mean, Chappelle is gut-wrenchingly funny, but what makes him tick?  What are his feelings about comedy?  Where does he draw inspiration from?  Why does he do what he does?  During the film’s 100 minutes he offers only two insights.  One: he feels that he’s “mediocre” at comedy and has “walked his way” to a fortune.  Two: many comedians wish they were musicians and vice versa.  Okay…and??!!  For a man that sure likes to chatter a lot, Chappelle has virtually nothing to offer in terms of keen insights into his profession. 

Ultimately, DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY is a remarkably flaccid and surprisingly inconsistent film-going experience.  If you are an connoisseur of Hip Hop music and the comedic trappings of Chappelle, then you’ll certainly feel right at home with the film.  As for the rest of the viewing populace that has not converted to either Chappelle or heavy-handed gangsta lyrics, BLOCK PARTY is far too hollow as an even passable documentary.   Any man with Chappelle’s inherent gifts would be ripe subject matter for a terrific concert documentary, but his on-stage moments are too infrequent and his off-stage ruminations about his methods are utterly vacant.  His brief moments lighting up the audience are rigidly punctuated by a lot of music numbers that are hastily and lazily edited together.  Beyond that, there is simply no voice in the film; it has very little to say about Chappelle or Hip Hop that we already knew.  Ultimately, what is the point, then?  To be sure, Chappelle’s heart was in the right place devising and staging this Brooklyn-based party, but the filmmaker’s heads certainly were not all there when it came time to chronicling this event.  At the end of it all, if you like Chappelle, rent some of his concert DVDs and avoid this film.  Don't worry, this is a party you’ll be glad you skipped.

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