A few months back, Sarah Silverman was a talk-show booker's money shot -- smart, pretty and the proud owner of a mouth that could give you gangrene. But in all the furor over her concert documentary, Jesus Is Magic, nobody noticed that the film wasn't actually all that magical. From the opening crane shot over the crowd to the sub-90-minute runtime, Jesus Is Magic contained nothing you couldn't find in any HBO comedy special.
There's no reason to believe that Dave Chappelle's Block Party should be any different. In fact, given how much of Chappelle's puncturing antics are displaced by musical acts in the film, Block Party should by all rights be the fluffier of the two. As it turns out, Block Party is everything that Jesus Is Magic never knew it should have been.
Inspired by 1973's Wattsstax, that epic document of an L.A. R&B/soul concert emceed by Richard Pryor, Chappelle concocted and hosted a secret Brooklyn block party featuring a raft of talent: au courant hip-hop stars (including Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and the Roots), a pair of has-been neo-soul earth mothers (Erykah Badu and Jill Scott) and a reunion nobody wanted (the Fugees, whose bland and over-heralded fourth-quarter drop-in is the film's sole dead spot). Chappelle's name may be the one in the title, but at least half of the Block Party's runtime is taken up with music -- which, at its best, is thrilling. This is especially true of Kanye West's performance, as he channels the spirit of Fleetwood Mac's "Tusk," with a full marching band honking and pummeling alongside him onstage.
Just as Chappelle is heir to Pryor's incorruptible sweetness, he's also stumbled recently into a period of mid-career sensitivity. Pryor famously announced after a trip to Africa that he'd no longer be saying "nigger" in his act. Similarly, during a recent appearance on Oprah, Chappelle claimed that he walked off his hugely successful Comedy Central series due in part to a sneaking feeling that the satirical content of his race gags were slipping beneath the notice of the show's fans; instead, he suspected that they were finding an acceptable venue for giggling at darkie monkeyshines. In Block Party, you can see Chappelle's social sensitivity at work in the bands he invites (many of whom, to be fair, were frequent guests on his show). Nearly all are demi-underground acts who are still unfashionable enough to speak about revolution and freedom -- more in line with Curtis Mayfield than 50 Cent.
Chappelle's newfound conscience leaks into the film in other ways, too. Though Block Party ripens with light sanctimony near the end, until that point, Chappelle's social ambition adds a background note of graceful uplift. This is most evident in the scenes apart from the concert -- like in the film's opening, as Dave roams his Western Ohio hometown, hanging out with locals and offering to treat them to a trip to New York for the party. Enormous credit goes to director Michel Gondry for knowing what to do with these moments.
Like Jesus Is Magic's Liam Lynch, Gondry comes from an MTV background, but one of mind-blowing artistic output. Although Block Party doesn't bear Gondry's most obvious trademark -- special effects that stagger between fantasy and reality -- there's something of his playful eye in every scene that explores the outer edges of the concert's backstory. The sweetly enthused marching band brought from the historically black school Central State University in Ohio to perform at the show; the hometown locals who clearly love the local-boy-made-good Chappelle; the gently cracked Brooklyn couple who own the abandoned church next to the concert site -- these parallel stories make the film what it is. Not simply a concert film, Block Party is a pretty good documentary; and like a real-life version of Yojimbo, each discontinuous facet of the story helps flesh out an organic whole.
These little vignettes also provide many of the film's funniest moments. Chappelle's sprinkling of onstage appearances at the block party are as gleeful as you'd expect, but his offstage interactions allow him to do what he does best. Enjoying Chappelle's Show is often a matter of responding to Chappelle's natural charisma, his ability to wrap up satire and goofiness and outrage and warmth all at once, despite the show's habitually lackluster writing. This provocateur documentary is a wonderful showcase for Chappelle's ability to be bitingly funny, but still personable, while remaining free of the perfunctory conceits of sketch writers. That there are plans for Gondry and Chappelle to work together again can only be good news.
- In Dave Chappelle's Block Party, the comedian's sprinkling of onstage appearances are as gleeful as you'd expect, but his offstage interactions allow him to do what he does best.