In early 2004 Dave Chappelle was the undisputed king of Comedy Central: his in your face style non-PC comedy stylings resonated with both critics and viewers, the show had garnered several Emmy nominations and sales of the first season of the Dave Chappelle Show exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. However even industry insiders were shocked when he was offered $50 million to produce two more seasons of the show. Soon after inking his epic deal, Chappelle decided to share his good fortune and set about staging the block party to end all block parties.
Drumming with Dave
There were several key elements in Chappelle’s vision, the first and most important being that it had to be free. The venue was also important – it had to take place in a real neighbourhood, one where the residents wouldn’t normally get the opportunity to participate in such an event. He also wanted to ensure that he brought different groups together and to that end he hometown of Dayton Ohio where, like a modern day Willie Wonka, he handed out fistfuls of golden tickets to passersby, including in one case, an entire university marching band. Not only did the tickets give the lucky out of towners access to the event, they also covered their transportation costs and accommodations. Chappelle then set about compiling his dream list of bands that he wanted to see in concert – it was on his dime after all. The execution is flawless.
The list of talent is as diverse as the genres they represent, from hip hop to blues and the eclectic collection of musicians take center stage both literally and figuratively. Performers include Mos Def, the inimitable Erykah Badu sporting a giant Angela Davis style fro and rocking her heart out, Kanye West just before his career skyrocketed, The Roots, and my new favorite group the Dead Prez whose riffs on political/social issues are devastatingly brilliant. Of course Chappelle’s biggest coup is engineering the surprise reunion of the Fugees after their much publicized split nearly a decade earlier. Apparently it wasn’t a one time deal either – rumor has it that they’re currently in the studio working on a new album.. In spite of its musical focus, Block Party isn’t a concert film in the strictest sense of the word.
Many of the film’s best scenes, including the requisite candid behind-the-scenes rehearsal spots, take place offstage, and there is a genuine warmth and levity that runs through them. The unique cast of characters that Chappelle encounters while hyping the event is intriguing, usually hilarious and often informative. Chappelle also does some great impromptu standup between and during the musical sets.
Block Party not only enjoys the distinction of being the best film that I’ve been to thus far in 2006 (in excess of thirty at this point), it is one of the refreshing concert films that I’ve seen. It is nearly impossible to avoid being caught up in Chappelle’s infectious enthusiasm – he is the proverbial kid in the candy store and doling out free samples for everyone. And therein lies Chappelle’s secret. The film succeeds because his vision is all-inclusive – it doesn’t matter who you are or what your background is, everyone can appreciate talented musicians and humor and share in the experience. Tyler Perry take note.