It’s interesting the way documentaries have evolved over the past few years. No longer the stuffy, stiff stuff of flat footage and droning narration, today’s documentaries strive to entertain as much or more than they bother to educate. The influence of reality television is at least partly to thank for that, so next time you turn on your set stop by “Dancing with the Stars” and deliver a quick thank you before you flip over to something better.
Block Party continues the newly entertaining documentary trend and takes traditional concert video and mixes it with footage of Dave Chappelle hanging around his neighborhood in Dayton, Ohio inviting some of the regular folks from his area to come to New York for his street side party. It sounds pretty simple, but somehow director Michel Gondry finds something more in all that footage, and Dave Chappelle’s Block Party becomes better than just an impromptu hip-hop music and comedy showcase in the poorest of poor big city streets.
What’s most interesting about the film is the way people respond to Dave as he strolls through his home town. “Old people love me,” says Dave, and strangely enough they do. When asked if she likes rap music, one of Dave’s older neighbors responds with an emphatic smile, “No, but we like you!” Dave keeps traveling through town, inviting people of all ages and walks of life from his city to join him in New York for the concert. Chappelle is hilarious here, this is him in his element, wandering around and cracking jokes off the cuff. I’ve never been a big fan of Dave Chappelle’s standup, but he’s a comedic genius when he’s just hanging out, saying whatever the heck bubbles up in his head. Those moments are brilliantly funny and strangely affecting, Gondry’s camera captures people in their happiest moments. Dave Chappelle walking up to you and handing you a golden ticket is a big deal for a run of the mill Joe from Dayton, and there’s a warm fuzzy feeling in watching it happen.
The first half of the movie intercuts all of Dave’s hanging out in with performances from the actual block party. People like Kanye West, Mos Def, and Erykah Badu take the stage, their music and stage antics blending together with those flashbacks to Dave’s preparation for the show to set a harmonious tone. For me, as a guy who’s not really a fan of what’s popular in hip-hop right now, what really makes it are the artists Dave has picked out for his show. He’s not interested in the 50 Cents of the world; instead he’s trying to give a voice to modern rap artists with something worthwhile to say. Some of his acts, like Kanye West, are a big deal. Others are artists like Dead Prez who, because their message is more relevant, aren’t likely to get much radio play. It’s a gathering of everything that’s best about rap music and hip-hop, the stuff that’s easily missed and forgotten in the prevalence of crap club music and gangsta rap.
As the film progresses though, it loses some of that balance between comedic man on the street bits and concert footage, and shifts more towards simply covering the concert. It misses a step there, the brilliant mix of comedy and music that made the movie so wonderfully affecting to begin with is replaced with uncomfortable moments like one in which a Black Panther takes the stage and screams for black power, while the smattering of white band members on stage with him awkwardly try to raise their fists in solidarity with the crowd. Gondry intentionally zooms in on one of their raised white fists. Well, what else were they going to do? But Gondry also goes out of his way to put this element in the right context. You get the sense that these artists aren’t trying to breed hatred with their racially charged message, but rather inspiration and effort in their audience and their fans.
Ultimately, what you’ll take away from Block Party is a newfound respect for Chappelle and rap music in general. Gondry finds the best in the movie's performers, their work, their neighbors, and their fans and then throws it up on screen with as much sincerity as both he and Mr. David Chappelle can muster. The result is a soulful, spontaneous buzz unlike anything you’ll find in any other concert movie.