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March 31, 2006
To be completely frank, I loved watching this film. It reminded me of a time in my life when my heroes were in groups called Blackstar and The Fugees, of a time when my favorite rappers wrote rhymes about Assata Shakur, tragic social injustice (meted out 41 shots at a time) and the "ONE! -NINE-NINE-NINE." This film reminded me of nights where Common and Bilal would come on the stereo and everyone would dance; drink in hand, heads nodding to the bass thump, hips swaying. It reminded me of being free and young and of those glorious college nights without the burden of responsibility or debt.

During those halcyon days some of my friends liked the indie scene, some liked shitty jam bands and others were way into electronic or funk or punk or whatever. The music featured in Dave Chappelle's Bock Party (which, for brevity's sake we'll refer to as DCBP), oft called neo-soul, served as the musical bridge to unite the warring tribes seeking common ground on the battlefield of party music. We could all get behind Wyclef Jean and Lauryn Hill trading verses about the crooked NYPD over Diamond D beats. We could all huddle close in the Iowa winters listening to Erykah Badu and Jill Scott remind Black Thought not to worry because baby, "You Got Me." All of my friends knew what Umi Says and the reason you needed to call Tyrone. We loved the hip-hop and soul, now scattered, that Dave Chappelle assembled on a New York street corner for a truly great event.

To start things off, a bit of background about the film: Director Michel Gondry - who made Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Human Nature and about 20 of the best music videos of all time - is at the helm of this film. As good as Gondry is at creating interesting fiction, this documentary is a mess. The film's editing is choppy to the point of cutting some of the most crucial interviews and insane performances at inappropriate moments. Worst of all, the film's narrative is hindered by Gondry's inability to establish even the slightest bit of linear coherence. This random style of editing might work for the French New Wave but it fails miserably here. Even Gondry, a genius in my opinion, cannot make this clutter work. DCBP cannot decide if it wants to be a "behind the scenes" look at Chappelle's concert or if it wants to be a concert film with moments of the backstage fun spliced throughout. Redemption of what would otherwise be a real shitfest of a documentary comes in the form of Dave Chappelle himself, who brings his humor and humanity to the forefront of everything he does. Even as the film lurches uncomfortably back and forth through time, Chappelle is there to hold your hand and keep you laughing.

The film's concept is based on the far superior concert documentary Wattstax which, if you haven't seen, you need to rent. The Wattstax concert featured most of the Stax Records line-up, including The Bar Kays and Isaac Hayes. Wattstax also captured some hilarious comedy from Richard Pryor, who interviewed Watts' residents about the state of race relations and Black America in 1972. Wattstax chose to be a concert film and stuck with that tried and true formula. The result was a nearly flawless documentary capturing the comedy of Richard Pryor, the inspirational spirit of a young Jesse Jackson and the idol-like presence of "Black Moses"-era Isaac Hayes. It is unfortunate that DCBP couldn't have maintained more focus, especially since there are brief snippets in the film suggesting that powerful Wattstax-like moments took place during Chappelle's Block Party. But, poor editing be damned, the film does follow Chappelle on his noble quest and that alone is worth the price of a ticket.

Starting in rural Ohio - not a place one would normally associate with hip-hop - Chappelle begins by inviting a crew of people - White, Black, young and old - to pile aboard a fleet of Brooklyn-bound busses. No one on board the coaches is aware of the concert's lineup but we, the audience, are treated to foreshadowing clips of the performances, which look fucking great. En route to Brooklyn, Chappelle encounters a marching band from Central State University and, after some discussion with the troupe's director, informs them that he would like them to join him in Brooklyn for a performance. This is the first of many moments in the movie where Chappelle's humanity shines through and, as joyous, screaming band members swarm him, he simply, sincerely smiles and laughs. Chappelle foots the bill for several busses-worth of travelers, including their food (there will be snacks!), lodging and return trip. Dave's unqualified generosity creates a familial atmosphere of gracious courtesy among his guests. Grace seems to be a common theme in Chappelle's comedy and character, and this intrinsic comeliness can be seen on any Chappelle's Show episode; as Chappelle requires his audience to think by always pushing "acceptable boundaries" but never hurts anyone - save for maybe R. Kelly, and who gives a shit about his pedophile ass anyway?

Images of sleepy bus riders flash across the screen as crowds begin lining up in Brooklyn. This is a place where Gondry could have built some tension, but failed to do so. It's too bad, too, because once the busses arrive in Brooklyn, it's on.

When the festivities finally kick off it is the Central State marching band that brings in Kanye West to the unforgiving, trudging pace of "Jesus Walks." Mr. West, looking a bit like the love child of Kool Moe Dee and Thriller-era Michael Jackson, watches the procession with the approving gaze of a battle tested general smelling napalm and feeling victorious.

Following West, Dead Prez takes the stage with a show-stopping performance. Dead Prez were the life of this gathering and they came out swinging - spitting fire and taking no prisoners. Dead Prez demanded the audience turn off the radio bullshit and urged the crowd to run up on the crackers in City Hall. I had heard a few of their songs before seeing this film but afterward I went out and bought everything release that I could find. Incidentally, the Dead Prez song "Hip Hop" is also the intro music to Chappelle's opening monologues on Chappelle's Show.

With the crowd sufficiently hyped, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott smoothed things out and held it down for the ladies with their soulful, sexy stage presences. Badu, rockin' the biggest fucking fake 'fro you will ever see, reminisced with the crowd about life back in the day, when things were cool. Pure funk through and through, Badu didn't falter when a gust of Brooklyn wind blew her wig off; she finished the show, exposed but with dignity intact, laughing along with the crowd, who ate it up. Later, Jill Scott showed off her considerable vocal prowess by singing over a soulful groove provided by The Roots crew. Both Badu and Scott returned later in the show when the Roots played "You Got Me." With neo-soul in a state of complete disarray, it is nice to know that these two goddesses are still making music and keeping hip-hop's misogynistic tendencies in check. It should be noted, however, that these two have fallen off the musical radar and are both due for something new.

Talib Kweli performed his hit "Get By" for the screaming crowd. Kool Herc, Big Daddy Kane and Kool G Rap appeared for a series of too-brief cameos to trade rhymes with this younger generation of MCs. Soon, everyone cleared the stage for the reunion of the decade; Chappelle took the stage and began giving the crowd bad news about the closing act, rumored to be a solo Lauryn Hill set. The crowd let out a collective sigh of disappointment.

Over the groans of those assembled, Wyclef Jean's voice could be heard singing the first few bars of "Mona Lisa", which segued into "Nappy Heads," heavy on patois. The crowd began screaming at the realization that they were about to be treated to a history-making reunion of The Fugees. Next, enter Lauryn Hill, looking less crazy than rumors of late would suggest - although noticeably tired. Soon the Ghetto Superstar himself, Pras, joined his fellow Refugees on the platform and the once powerful hip-hop triumvirate was again complete.

With the sun completely set, L. Boogie began a beautiful version of "Killing Me Softly." Things seemed to coast along smoothly until Hill forgot the song's lyrics and - for a flash - viewers were reminded of what had made her such a sight for sore eyes. For a long time anyone following music was aware of a series of bad articles about the state of Hill's mental health. These articles' claims were supported by Hill's acoustic album, where the once succinct and lucid artist rambled on about religion and politics seemingly without point or coherence, unable to even finish a song. As quick as it came however, the trouble ended and we saw the strength return and watched as Lauryn Hill righted herself, finishing the song with her voice strong and focused. Suddenly all was right with the world again, and for a minute we could believe that the proper follow up to The Score could be better than recent Verizon ads might suggest.

To use a cliché, all good things must come to an end, and with the conclusion of the Fugees' set Chappelle implored the assemblage to remember what had taken place and then said goodnight. Walking out of the theater, I thought back on an earlier scene in the film when Chappelle visited a daycare center, which was next door to the block party's locale. In a tender moment Chappelle, surrounded by children, tells the school's principal that this is the best day of his career. Through the lens of this flawed but compelling documentary, viewers are privileged enough to experience that incredible day with him. Anyone looking for 90 minutes of positive entertainment in these dark days of racial profiling and right-wing America will find what he or she is searching for in this film.

SEE ALSO: www.chappellesblockparty.com
SEE ALSO: www.roguepictures.com

--
Jon Burke
A contributing writer and a Chicago resident who will not be goaded by LAS’s editor into revealing any more details about his potentially sordid affairs.

See other articles by Jon Burke.

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