Part documentary, part satire, part road trip, part concert film, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is ultimately a film about the unlikely commonalities that are at the heart of America. Directed by Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), Block Party ostensibly chronicles Chappelle's quest to throw the ultimate block party. The resultant film is a resonant, albeit somewhat disjointed, look at how the heartland and the 'hood, regardless of how both ends of the spectrum would deny it, speak with the same unconscious, but universal voice.
Block Party opens in Chappelle's rural Yellow Springs, Ohio hometown (population 4500), however it's anything but a celebrity homecoming. Rather, the movie goes to great lengths to depict the town's inhabitants, and Chappelle himself, as representatives of the American Heartland. From the outset, though, the understated sarcasm that is part and parcel of his brand of humor becomes the underlying thread that weaves through the entire film. Chappelle's ulterior motive is to load the citizenry on a bus to Brooklyn for the "ultimate block party." It's a motley crew who signs on for the trip, from the woman who sells him cigarettes at the corner store, to the town's two probation officers (one white, one black, neither known for soul), to the entire Central State University Marching Band.
Chappelle doesn't disappoint them – or the viewing audience, for that matter. While Block Party is billed as a concert film, it works on a number of levels, not the least of which is social commentary. The characters who populate the film are real people, the kind of Americans who may have slipped through the cracks of mainstream society, but have built a reality for themselves nonetheless. Take, for instance, the owners of the Broken Angel House, which serves as a backdrop for the block party. At first glance, they seem like the oldest surviving acid casualties in the world — which they probably are — but between Gondry's direction and Chappelle's conversational interview techniques, they ultimately come across as a lovely couple whose marriage has endured over 40 years.
All that not withstanding, Block Party shines as a concert film unlike any before it. Perhaps it is because Gondry is French and sees hip-hop culture from a distanced perspective. Or perhaps it is because Chappelle is from the Heartland and romanticizes Brooklyn as a mythical land, the finished product is dazzling in its sheer exuberance. There simply is not one bad performance in the concert — not surprising since the roster includes Kanye West, Erikah Badu, the Roots and Mos Def, not to mention the finally reunited Fugees, fronted by Lauryn Hill and Wyclef Jean.
Block Party may not be one of the great concert films by iconoclastic standards, but like Woodstock before it, it presents to the social mainstream a musical and cultural idiom that shows no sign of retreating. Nor should it. Rap, when done right, is nothing short of street poetry. The musicians, such as Dead Prez and Common, represented on Block Party bring that point home forcefully, and Jill Scott, Erikah Badu and the Fugees eloquently delineate the intricacies of hip-hop.
The DVD unrated edition of Block Party offers extended (read that full) performances of the acts in the concert, as well as the obligatory "making of" featurette. While that is often interesting, the "Ohio Players" featurette, about the people from Ohio and their impressions of Brooklyn, stands alone as entertainment in a home video meets Comedy Central kind of way.
All in all, Dave Chappelle's Block Party is a must-have for anybody with more than a passing interest in popular culture, and a "you really gotta see it" for everybody else.