Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 29 September 2005
Source Pilot Boy Productions 35mm print
“It’s a celebration, bitches.”
Dave Chappelle as Rick James
The concept of Michel Gondry’s concert documentary is simple, even though the execution of the event that the film chronicles is fairly challenging. In 2004, comedian Dave Chappelle’s comedy show enjoyed an extraordinary degree of success. Though the sensation that his hilariously provocative sketch comedy caused was unexpected by most, Chappelle has always enjoyed a devoted following of fans that appreciate the relaxed delivery of his seemingly spontaneous and uninhibited material. Chappelle made no apologies for boldly approaching divisive, incendiary topics regarding race. His brilliance was in reducing these tensions to utterly ridiculous scenarios and relishing the prospect of being an equal-opportunity offender, at times even ridiculing his own biased tendencies. The comedian also had a noticeable amount of fun while he laughed at anything he could possibly think up. Chappelle’s ability to consistently draw an audience of loyal viewers to Comedy Central made him one of the cable network’s superstar personalities, with his status probably only rivaled by Jon Stewart. Before Chappelle started work on his third season, Comedy Central realized the enormity of Chappelle’s popularity and signed him to a lucrative long-term contract, thereby ensuring that Chappelle would keep creating his show for the network in the immediate future.
Gondry’s documentary picks up just after Chappelle has secured his financial future. With his net-worth now more than $50 million, Chappelle decides to throw himself a party to commemorate his success. Instead of a lavish, extravagant, formal bash in his own honor, Dave decides to coordinate an inconspicuous block-party featuring an intimate hip-hop concert that will simply offer a place to gather, relax, and celebrate urban culture and community. The hip-hop acts that Chappelle enlists are mostly friends or artists whom he admires and include The Roots, Kanye West, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Common, and a few special guests as the headliners. Of course, to make it a bona fide block party, Chappelle avoids the glitz of Manhattan and the glamour of Hollywood, and instead decides on a secret location in Brooklyn.
Gondry loosely assembles the footage of Chappelle’s efforts. The film floats between scenes from various periods during the block party’s planning, organization, and execution. Amid the numerous and extensive performances, Chappelle occasionally drops in to deliver some comedy relief and keep the crowd energetic as they withstand the rain, while viewers are treated to a back-stage pass where they can lounge around with the musicians. The result is a concert film that is lively and enthusiastic throughout, but never obnoxious or tedious.
The film starts off in Ohio, where Chappelle once lived. While walking around town, Chappelle passes out “golden tickets” to former friends and neighbors, as well as random people he runs into. Some are standard Caucasian Mid-Westerners, including a few elderly residents and the lady Dave buys his morning coffee from, and all are earnestly friendly towards Dave. Naturally, the juxtaposition of Chappelle next to his rural neighbors is fairly comical. Dave then comes across a local college marching band comprised primarily of young African-American students and invites them all to Brooklyn to not only attend the concert, but also to perform as part of the festivities. We also meet two young Black men who are thrilled when Dave hands them invites. Later on they recount how, while playing golf earlier that day at a local course and searching for ball gone astray, they were harassed by another group of golfers. The anecdote takes a decidedly distressing turn when the young men mention that a particularly vile racial slur was thrown their way. Fortunately, they both maintain their composure and decide to ignore the offense in order to avoid any trouble that may prevent them from attending the block party on the weekend. With all of Chappelle’s invitations dispersed, our lucky Ohio residents hop on a bus to travel cross-county to Brooklyn, New York. Though the events in Ohio seem amusing and carefree enough, Gondry and Chappelle have quietly accented a few issues regarding how race affects everyday life in America. During the course of the next 90 minutes Gondry and Chappelle will not only throw a bumpin’ party, but also take a sincere snapshot of the ordinary concerns of African-Americans.
From the fresh air of the Mid-West, Chappelle dashes back to Brooklyn with Gondry following intently. Back in the five boroughs, Chappelle organizes his bash as a reflection of his own relaxed personality: no tickets, no advertising, and word of the location will only be released through underground networks. Chappelle also bans profanity and guns so that anyone in the community can attend.
Since Gondry spends so much time with Chappelle while he organizes the event within the area, it’s natural for the film to explore the dynamics of the community. Dave’s chosen spot is just a regular street amongst the urban erosion of Bed-Stuy. The bare-basics stage will be placed in front of some dilapidated property owned by two local eccentrics, who Chappelle personally persuades to give their blessings for the concert. Though they’re not fans of rap music due to the use of foul language, the colorful couple grants Chappelle’s request because they love the intention of his concept. Chappelle then helps spread the word with a megaphone while driving down the more prosperous streets of Brooklyn, formerly featured on a hit 80s sitcom about a successful African-American family. It’s an interesting dichotomy of inner-city images, displaying opposite ends of the spectrum, but it’s also quite apparent that the gap between to two areas is not vast. Later, Chappelle visits a local daycare center that will serve as the backstage area for his concert so that he can thank the staff, enjoy a brief conversation with the principal, and drop in on the kids. The children are all as cheerful and innocent as the children in any other daycare, though one wonders whether the center is able to obtain adequate funding to meet the needs of the community.
In many ways, hip-hop culture has served as America’s guide to understanding urban African-American culture. Given metropolitan and suburban seclusion based upon income, few people obtain a true understanding of what daily life is like for lower-income urban communities. Since hip-hop culture has its roots within these neighborhoods, the music genre has long represented these areas to the outside world, offering an internal perspective that differs dramatically from the traditional view of American life. In reality, hip-hop culture is currently the most visible and vocal aspect of African-American culture in America. To an ethnic minority that is arguable losing its political and demographic influence within contemporary American society, hip-hop culture is an important export to the American mass conscious since it is able to provide some perspective of urban life. The problem is that hip-hop has fallen prey to the same difficulties as any other pop-music genre. Incorporation has warped hip-hop into an exhibition of cartoonish thuggery that has unfortunately served to further an ethnic stereotype. In sharp contrast to these images of greed and violence, the performers that Chappelle selects are artists of considerable musical talents, many of whom convey a realistic, moral, or political message. With his meek stage, it appears Chappelle is not interested in perpetuating misconceptions, and is instead concerned with displaying an image of his culture that can foster pride in his friends and neighbors.
Before the big event, Gondry takes some time to focus on the preparations of Chappelle and the invited musicians. Chappelle clowns around for the most part, running through a comic routine with Mos Def and generally just enjoying being able to hang-out and share a laugh with friends. A few interviews are interspersed throughout, as well as conversations between Chappelle and his friends while they are chilling out. The dialogue helps us appreciate the connection between these artists who have supported each other’s careers. Chappelle conveys his own appreciation of music and compares it to his love for comedy, commenting about the similarities of both art forms and the natural desire for artists to cross over into other creative pursuits. Chappelle then mentions his admiration for Thelonious Monk’s sense of timing, which he readily admits he has attempted to adapt and emulate for his own work.
During the actual concert, Gondry not only shows extensive footage of the performances, but also spends time with the other artists backstage. While the musicians unwind and await their turn, many of them speak of their appreciation for their fellow performers. Most engaging is the focus Gondry places upon the female performers. While Eryka Badu puts all her energy into her performance on stage, Jill Scott sits backstage admiring the sheer will and talent displayed in Badu’s efforts, commenting that she feels indebted to Badu’s labors as a modern-day vanguard and icon for Black-female musicians. Badu returns the favor to Scott by providing backing vocals on a poignant version of The Roots “Things Fall Apart.” In documenting these private moments of support for the work of others, Gondry creates a remarkable sense of encouragement, collaboration, and unity.
The performances themselves display an enthusiasm and sense of needed release. Each artist is passionate and spirited without any displays of discomfort due to the equipment or venue. Of all the musicians he has invited, Chappelle is most enthusiastic about Dead Prez and their politically-charged content and raw style. The rap group’s lyrics are heavy with pleas regarding freedom of speech and barriers to expression, as they seek to draw attention to existing social troubles. Mixed within their political messages, the group appeals to its audience to ignore the mainstream and liberate their minds from predictable patterns of thinking. Chappelle eagerly promotes the duo, claiming that their bold message is required listening even if their work is not readily available.
While Dead Prez is relatively blatant and deliberate with their message, Gondry and Chappelle are much more restrained for the most part. Though they are exploring issues of race and society, their methods are never blunt, overt, or heavy-handed. The film remains respectful of both the messenger and the viewer, and appears more interested in accurately presenting a community rather than campaigning for a cause. Occasionally, Chappelle and Gondry briefly interrupt the proceedings to deliver some more substantial substance into the film. The most noteworthy of these interludes is a young Black male who was born an orphan, who now fights to free those who have been wrongfully imprisoned. There are various other reserved displays of political concerns, including the college students imagining being president and Chappelle playing basketball against a group of children in order to free the entire Black race. The political aspirations of the film are mostly a reflection of simply spending extended time within the neighborhood. Thus the statements never turn into personal accusations and condemnations of other Americans, as no specific blame is laid or finger pointed. Instead the film gives the impression that the predominant attitude within the community is that the discrimination of minorities in America is somewhat institutional. However, the film is also careful to make sure that individuals take personal responsibility for their station in life. In fact, Wyclef Jean addresses the college students to praise them for seeking a higher education, but then asks them to not be satisfied with their achievements, and continue to strive for higher goals so that they can continue to succeed in American society. It’s a great display of American optimism that the oppression these students may feel can still be broken through personal effort.
Another revealing moment is when Chappelle speaks about the death of rap-legend Biggie Smalls (The Notorious B.I.G.), whose murder remains unsolved. Since Biggie grew up with Brooklyn, Chappelle discusses Smalls’ life with a member of Junior Mafia, a group of protégés that Smalls mentored once he gained industry clout. The discussion centers on their childhood and Biggie’s strong ties to the hip-hop community in Brooklyn even after he blew-up. It’s clear that the slaying of Smalls wears heavily upon Chappelle as he becomes more famous and wealthy. As Dave admits, even though no White American gives a second thought about the lack of effort in the investigation of Smalls’ homicide, it’s an ongoing source of anxiety to any young Black American having to ponder these circumstances “everyday.”
For a director renowned for his visual ingenuity and a comedian inundated with so much hype, Gondry and Chappelle’s collaboration remains decidedly humble. At one point, while dabbling at “Round Midnight” on the piano, Chappelle casually confesses he is mediocre at both comedy and music, and that what he has accomplished so far might just be based on his ability to bullshit. Meanwhile Gondry’s visual style remains fairly tame. Instead, Gondry makes his statements through simple creative choices. His most successful creative decision is to film his documentary in digital. The medium diffuses skin tones with its grain, and once the concert starts and the audience members gather and mingle the colors of the crowd pop on digital. Though the rain dismays the crowd, it only serve to enhance Gondry’s visuals as the reds and yellows blend and blur with their surrounding hues in a wonderful mix of vivid color, thus furthering his themes of diversity and harmony through connection and interaction.
There is one moment of visual brilliance, but instead of special effects, Gondry makes his mark with a simple editing decision. During one of Chappelle’s comic interludes in front of the rowdy crowd that is hanging on his every word and ready to explode in laughter, Gondry holds on the comedian as he sets-up a dirty-joke. However, just as Dave is ready to delivery the punch-line, Gondry cuts back to Chappelle rehearsing his routine in front of his friends. Instead of providing the punch-line to thousands of concert-goers, Chappelle now directly address the audience of the film, and the reaction to his joke is not from a mass in Brooklyn, but the viewing audience in a theatre. It’s a clever cinematic trick that allows us to appreciate how comedy, as well as music, is an art-form that often crosses all obstacles.
Chappelle’s Brooklyn block party concludes with a surprise closing-act. As the crowd eagerly waits, Chappelle and Gondry tease their audience with the details. A once acclaimed band that separated because of jealousy and rivalry re-unites for the show. When they finally arrive there is noticeable shock, which quickly transitions to roars and screams. By closing the concert with this band, Chappelle and Gondry end their film on a note of forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s an apt scene to close a concert doc devoted to recognizing the struggles of a community, the benefits of collaboration between artists and citizens, and the sense of liberation that celebration provides.
Chappelle’s Block Party may have sadly been Dave’s closing act. Since the party documented in Gondry’s film, much to the chagrin of his fans, Chappelle has walked away from his comedy show. Amid rumors of mental illness and admissions of fatigue, Chappelle escaped to Africa and Europe when faced with the daunting task of starting a third season of his comedy show. Watching Chappelle enjoying the fruits of his own labors, one quickly realizes that the party serves as a reprieve from the pressures Chappelle believes he is now facing.
Perhaps the block party was the pinnacle of everything Chappelle set out to accomplish, and his ultimate statement is not a call to arms, but instead an appeal to appreciate a culture that is often marginalized and misunderstood. The blissful nature of the block party and Chappelle’s ability to unite his neighbors in a celebration of community is a testament to his own persistence and perseverance. The sheer magnitude of the occasion reflects the extent of struggle, not just for Chappelle, but for any minority in America. It’s an event anyone would be proud to participate in. While watching intently, Chappelle mentions that “this is the concert I always wanted to see,” and with that he appears content to walk away.