I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

Dave Chappelle’s Block Party

DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY is the happiest, warmest, most joyful movie I’ve seen in a long god damn time. And not in a stupid way. The problems of the world are not ignored. There’s some light-hearted jokes about race issues, there’s a mention or two of the war, there’s some militant rap lyrics and a brief sermon by Fred Hampton Jr. All things I’m in favor of discussing. But mostly what this movie is is a whole bunch of people coming together to laugh and make beautiful music and have a good time together. In that sense it turns out it is kind of like WATTSTAX, the movie they mentioned as a model when they were filming this. I made fun of my ain’t it cool colleague Quint for writing that the trailer gives off a Wattstax vibe as if he came to that conclusion on his own. But there is a faint whiff of that vibe in the final movie I guess, if you’re really making a close examination of its vibes.

I saw this movie in what I consider a JASON X set up: the same big auditorium where I saw JASON X, mostly empty with only a few people peppered throughout, but sharing their love for the movie across the empty rows. At the end of the movie people clapped, like it was a live performance. I can’t remember the last time I saw that at a regular multiplex showing like this.

Block PartyI won’t be condescending and pretend to explain to you who Dave Chappelle is, why he’s great, etc. But let me make 3 points before we get to it.

  1. After the untimely demise of CHAPPELLE’S SHOW, cast member Charlie Murphy put a positive spin on it saying it had burned bright and ended before it got old and compromised, calling it “The Tupac of Shows.” I thought that was a good description but I’m hoping this movie is a new beginning and not just another posthumous album.
  2. At some point before he died Richard Pryor apparently said that he considered Chappelle to be his heir apparent, or whatever Richard would’ve called it.
  3. In this movie, Chappelle is wearing a Richard Pryor t-shirt.

Like anybody, I think Chappelle is a funny and likable guy. But for me personally, his leaving for South Africa episode brought him to the next level. I don’t know what kind of troubles he was having but no matter what it was, there’s not alot of people who would’ve said, “Oh well, it’s just a multi-million dollar contract for a hugely successful TV show at the height of its popularity. I have bigger fish to fry.” It’s the same thing I always say about Chris Tucker. We live in a culture where The American Dream has come to mean making alot of money, even if it means serving up a bunch of disposable crap for your idiot fans to waste money on. Chris Tucker and Dave Chappelle are two guys who got themselves in a position where they could’ve made millions just by signing on to Martin Lawrence type crap or throwing out some catch-phrases and half-assed Soul Plane type business. And instead, they just took a break. Chappelle actually had it in his hands and decided he would be happier if he let it go. Hell, even Richard Pryor didn’t do that.

He seems like a genuine guy to me. I don’t know if you watched that episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, but that was a great fucking interview. The guy is still hilarious but also alot more thoughtful than you’d think from all these dumb kids running around saying “H-WHUT? H-WHUT? I’m RICK JAMES BITCH! H-WHUT?” I didn’t see him on Oprah (and it just now occurred to me that he did a whole skit about impregnating Oprah to get to her money – I wonder what she said about that?) but apparently he said he would consider doing his show again but would give all the money to charity. Apparently he has this complex that he feels guilty for being funny because what he considers funny he also considers socially irresponsible. That’s a cool guy right there.

Well, DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY is chapter 1 in the cool-guy-gets-lots-of-money saga, where Dave has recently signed his big contract with Comedy Central and decides to use his money to put together the concert of his dreams on a block in Bed-Stuy. So it’s a concert movie showing performances by Kanye West, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Dead Prez, The Roots, Eryka Badu, Common, Jill Scott, Cody Chesnutt, The Fugees, others, hosted by Dave Chappelle. In between performances you see Dave in a small town in Ohio where he lives, trying to find a few people to bus to New York to watch the show. So you see him being funny talking to all these people and in rehearsals and backstage with the performers.

Like all my favorite documentaries, this is a movie with some interesting characters. There’s the two guys from Ohio who are humorously excited to go to the show and tell some funny stories. There’s the weirdo acid-head couple who own a strange, mostly destroyed house next to the block party stage. There’s the nice old lady from the convenience store who Dave wants to reward for not bothering him when he comes to buy his cigarettes in the morning. And the mohawked guy who Dave calls “Mr. T” and pulls out of the crowd for a freestyle battle.

The interviews with the musicians aren’t very in-depth because that’s not really what it’s about, but there’s some good stuff there too. There’s a couple really moving moments in the movie for me. One is the prayer that the rapper Common gives backstage before the show, because it’s a damn good prayer. It will probaly make a few atheists think praying is cool. I’m not all that into this guy’s rapping but he is very good at picking out hats and at praying.

The other touching moment is when the Fugees (whose surprise reunion for the block party was a huge deal) talk about getting over their disagreements to be together again. This guy Pras says that when he hears Lauryn Hill sing it almost makes him cry, and then you see how much it obviously means to the people in the crowd, and it makes you almost cry too. Unless you’re tough like me, I wouldn’t almost cry at something like that, obviously.

The scene that completely amazed me though is when Chappelle is joking around in a Salvation Army and he sits down at the piano. You’re expecting him to make some joke like when he fucks around on the bongos, but instead he sits and plays Thelonious Monk’s beautiful, off-kilter anthem “Round Midnight.” We learn that Chappelle is not a trained musician, but over his life has managed to learn how to play two songs, one of them being Round Midnight. And then he tells the camera how much he loves Monk’s “ill timing” and that all comedians and musicians should study it.

Pretty deep for the “H-WHUT?” guy. And he clearly has a deep love for music, whether it’s an influence for his comedy or not. The performances are infectious, you definitely don’t have to be a fan of these people to be moved by it. In the introduction to his new book THE DEAD EMCEE SCROLLS: THE LOST TEACHINGS OF HIP-HOP, the brilliant poet (and star of the movie SLAM) Saul Williams writes:

“There is no music more powerful than hip-hop. No other music so purely demands an instant affirmative on such a global scale. When the beat drops, people nod their heads, ‘yes,’ in the same way that they would in conversation with a loved one, a parent, professor, or minister. Instantaneously, the same mechanical gesture that occurs in moments of dialogue as a sign of agreement which subsequently, releases increased oxygen to the brain and, thus, broadens one’s ability to understand, becomes the symbolic and actual gesture that connects you to the beat.”

In the theater, if you are not too self conscious, you will probaly find yourself nodding your head “yes” to this music, or tapping your feet or some other type of activity that seems kind of goofy when you’re sitting in a chair watching a movie. Like Williams, Chappelle is trying to glorify the “positive” movements in hip hop and soul that have been mostly buried or forgotten, at least in the commercial world. I don’t think there’s one song performed in this movie that talks about jewelry or cars or bitches or guns. These are people who are talking about love or revolution. They’re more interested in the Black Panthers than Donald Trump.

By the way did you notice up there how I quoted an unrelated poet and drew parallels between the substance of his work and what I see as the themes of this movie? And I was totally casual about it. You’d think I quote poets every day. I might be reviewing a straight to video Van Damme movie pretty soon, if somebody knows a good greek philosophy quote or something, let me know. Man, that was awesome if I do say so myself. Eat a dick, Rex Reed.

Speaking of Rex Reed, I love how when a movie like this comes out they gotta review it in all the newspapers and everything so you got these 50 year old white dudes in a situation where they gotta pretend they know who Dead Prez is or that the Fugees broke up, or that there actually is somebody called the Fugees. It kind of shows how dumb it is that one person is supposed to be the judge of all movies. All you gotta do though is find a crack research team to explain all the shit to you. Then you can drop a few pearls here and there and people will think you’re an encyclopedia.

For example there are some great moments for fans of The Roots. On the song “BOOM!” Black Thought shows off his dead-on impersonations of old school legends Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap. But for BLOCK PARTY Kane and Kool G pop up to perform those verses themselves. Another great moment comes during the Grammy winning “You Got Me” from the album Things Fall Apart. The song was written by Jill Scott before her success as a solo artist, but the label insisted on a more famous guest star so she was replaced by Eryka Badu. You might wonder if Scott is bitter about that, and the answer seems to be no since the two get to perform the song together in BLOCK PARTY.

See, if you get help you can make it seem like you’ve heard of all these guys before. But it’s important to point out that you don’t have to have heard of them to enjoy the movie. And it’s not geared to this exact moment in pop music – in fact, it was filmed in 2004. Kanye West is definitely the biggest of the performers right now, but he goes on first and there’s not that much emphasis on him. There is a brilliant moment though where he gets to watch a marching band perform his song “Jesus Walks” (aka “Theme from JARHEAD Trailer”).

As a documentary it’s very straightforward, not alot of show off business. It’s got a beautiful, timeless look because it’s shot on film. The director is genius Frenchman Michel Gondry who everybody loves now because he did ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF A SPOTLESS MIND. If I could just say one thing here – “I TOLD YOU SO.” Please refer to this phrase whenever the national re-evaluation of Gondry’s first movie HUMAN NATURE begins.

I think WOODSTOCK won the best documentary Oscar, but these days it’s hard to imagine a concert documentary even getting nominated. In order to help BLOCK PARTY’s chances I should probaly just come out and say, this should win best documentary but there’s no way in hell it would even get nominated, because they are a bunch of fuckin pansies who don’t have the balls to do it, they don’t care about black people, etc. etc. Anyway I hope they give it some serious consideration next year. Consider this, mothefuckers: this is a must-see movie. If you are the type of person who likes to laugh and have fun, then I think you would like it.

I’ve seen people say this about other movies but I’m gonna use it here. AN INSTANT CLASSIC. DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY IS THE FIRST GREAT MOVIE OF 2006.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Thursday, March 9th, 2006 at 3:22 am and is filed under Comedy/Laffs, Documentary, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party”

  1. Loved this movie. Had a pretty similar experience to you in the theatre – only a few people in there, but everyone was absolutely loving it. I was a bit of a latecomer to hip hop, and this was the movie that made me sit up and take notice of Dead Prez, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli.

    Last week I got to see Dead Prez and Talib Kweli live, finally, and it was worth the wait – was having nice flashbacks to this film.

    Michel Gondry is a really good director, but while this may be his least obviously his film, I don’t think I’ve enjoyed any of his films as much as this one. Feelgood in the best sense.

  2. Holy shit, only one (great) comment after all this time?? I was way too much of a nervous lurker to post anything when this gem dropped back in the day that’s for sure. Anyway, Vern – I’m assuming you have watched at least one of Dave Chappelle’s recent Netflix specials. His run about apathy and Care Bears made me think of you and this sight and all of the good it has done for me and countless others over the years and I just wanted to say Thank You. Thank you for always keeping that torch burning and for repping that Don’t Be Ellis / Don’t Be an Apatheist ideology loud and fucking proud for as long as you’ve been in the game.

  3. Plus the fact that the Care Bear run culminated in a (SPOILER) cum joke also felt apropos to the way that you and your amazing comment contributors can balance the sacred with the profane seemingly effortlessly on the regular.

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