In September 2004, comic Dave Chappelle put on a free concert in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. Thousands of people came — most of them black, some white — and even though it rained, a fantastic time was apparently had by all. It was an example of how happy people can be with one another when music is their common denominator, like the Los Angeles Wattstax concert in 1972.
Chappelle’s event itself was A+. If you like hip-hop, you’ll love this film, which is basically a concert film interspersed with clips of Chappelle being his charming Everyman self, eschewing comedy sketches.
If you don’t like hip-hop, this film is not for you, with a few notable exceptions.
Block Party was directed by Michel Gondry, who directed and co-wrote Best Script Oscar-winner Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). That movie’s cinematographer, Ellen Kuras — one of the few female cinematographers doing big movies — also shot Block Party. Here, the result of their filmmaking expertise is, oddly, that the best parts of the movie for non-hip-hop fans are intriguing, but not given enough film time to be satisfying. In other words, this film might be great for everyone, once the longer DVD version is released.
The film starts out promisingly enough. Three days before the concert, Chappelle visits his hometown (the screen says Dayton, but it’s really Yellow Springs, Ohio) and passes out “golden” free tickets to the concert. One group benefiting from his largesse is the entire Central University Marching Band — two busloads of delightfully enthusiastic musicians whom I wished we had seen more of.
Arriving in Brooklyn, Chappelle interviews the musicians before and after the concert. More interesting are his interviews with nonmusicians, such as the earth mother who runs the day-care center from whose roof Chappelle watches the concert, and the wildly eccentric, elderly hippie couple whose home (a renovated church) is a backdrop to the concert stage.
Among the many musicians who perform at least one song, hip-hop fans will know artists such as Talib Kweli and Kanye West, as well as Common, Ded Prez, the Roots, Cody ChesnuTT, and Big Daddy Kane. I recognized Mos Def from his fine turns as an actor in such films as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and his current outing, Block 16, where he’s the motor-mouth buddy to Bruce Willis’ aging cop.
For me, the film took flight only when the female performers were onstage. Erykah Badu (whom you may recognize from her role as the apple picker’s daughter in Cider House Blues) first performs in a two-foot wide Afro wig, then throws it off in the glee of the moment. Her duet with a Queen Latifah-like Jill Scott is unforgettable. The most electric moment of the film is the all-too-brief appearance of Lauryn Hill and the Fugees (together for the first time in eight years). Their heart-stopping rendition of Killing Me Softly is worth the price of admission all by itself. Rated R for language.
– reviewed by Marcianne Miller