If one is a great fan of Dave Chappelle, whose stand-up routines and recently-aborted cable TV show have won him near-cult status, or an aficionado of hip-hop and rap music, this concert movie may be exactly your cup of tea. It’s a record of a big free street bash that comedian held in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn in September 2004, which he hosted and to which he’d invited a cross-section of local folk and ordinary people from back in his native Ohio–as well as a slew of top musical performers, of course.
This review must therefore come with a caveat: I don’t fall into either of those categories. To me Chappelle seems an amiable fellow, but at least on the evidence of this documentary, his ad-libs and one-liners are amusing but hardly hysterical, and while his racially inclusive attitude (evinced in some nicely satirical barbs) is certainly welcome, it’s hardly revolutionary. As to the music, it’s one of those acquired tastes I haven’t acquired. Much of it seems nothing more than irritatingly insistent rhythm accompanied by largely unintelligible lyrics. But that’s just me.
There are aspects of “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” though, that can be the subject of less subjective criticism. One is the issue of vanity. A good portion of the movie is devoted to footage of Chappelle going about the streets of his hometown, asking people if they want the prized tickets to his party, and they all fawn over him, telling him how much they just adore his work. We would get the idea that the guy’s got a substantial fan base in a lot less time; devoting so much space to people telling us how great Dave is borders on idolatry–especially when the other people involved in the show are given ample opportunity to express similar sentiments.
Then there’s the question of condescension. The humor Chappelle makes at the expense of others is usually fairly gentle (as with the music teacher whose Ohio band comes to the party), but there’s something just a little unsavory about what he and director Michel Gondry do with a peculiar couple who live near the concert site. To be sure, they’re more than a trifle strange–the guy looks like an aging hippie (or rock-star wannabe), and his wife has a bit of the Gloria Swanson “Sunset Boulevard” air about her. But the picture lingers on them more than usual, even returning to them a second time–quite unnecessarily. It seems overkill to turn them into a couple of near grotesques, and unkind to encourage us to laugh at them.
Speaking of Gondry, his work is problematic, too. The gritty, hand-held style (Ellen Kuras is responsible for the bland cinematography) is what you’d expect, but overall it lacks any real zest or distinction in this instance. It’s the same ragged, visually uninteresting approach he took to “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”–a remarkably overrated film–and it succeeds no better here. Gondry and editors Sarah Flack and Jeff Buchanan can also be criticized for cutting that makes the piece more clumsy and stuttering than it need be. Their habit of snipping the musical numbers into tiny bits rather than letting them play out in full will be especially annoying to those who really like the artists.
For those not taken by them, on the other hand, it will probably be the volume that causes problems. The sound, at least at the preview I attended, was pretty much ear-splitting. Being assaulted in that way by music you don’t particularly care for is a double insult.
So the verdict on “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” is pretty clear. If you like the guy and the sort of music featured at his bash, give it a try. If not, give it a pass, and check out “Neil Young: Heart of Gold” instead.