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The Dave Chappelle (and Friends) Show

May 12, 2006

I should clear the air on a couple of things: I’m not a huge hip hop fan, I like Dave Chappelle but I’m not in man-love with him (unlike most 20-something white guys I know) and the last concert movie I sat all the way through was, um, This is Spinal Tap? So there’s no good reason I should like Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, or even want to see it.

All that being said, I am a hopeless sucker for good reviews, and I practically spring a boner any time Entertainment Weekly gives a movie an A. (Although I trust Owen Gleiberman more than Lisa Schwarzbaum, and continue to feel sorry for Scott Brown, who is only given the most unappetizing leftovers to pick through – cheap horror movies, cheaper urban comedies and Linsday Lohan flicks.) So I was pretty much obligated to see Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.

So what is it about Dave Chappelle that has a generation of middle-class white people snorting Hefeweizen out of our noses? (Besides our love for anybody who calls us a cracker. We’re a bunch of masochists really.) The guy’s certainly got charisma: when he talks, his eyes bulge in a kind-of crazy way and his head bobbles like it’s tethered to his spine by a string. When he walks, he scrapes his feet and seems on the verge of tripping over himself. When he’s not flapping his bony arms to make a point, they’re so lifeless they seem to sway with the wind. And his natural voice is so cartoonish, you’d swear it’s a put-on. He’s like a crackhead Muppet. And like all Muppets, it’s impossible not to like him.

Chappelle-Block-Party.jpg Muppets.jpg

The similarities are uncanny, aren’t they?

The documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party is basically a tribute to Chappelle’s likeability. Its premise is simple: Dave Chappelle is going to take over a burned-out block in Bed-Stuy, in Brooklyn, for one September afternoon and throw a kick-ass hip hop concert. To spice things up (or perhaps simply to keep his kook genius director Michel Gondry amused), he returns to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio, to hand out Wonka-esque golden tickets to the show to regular folks. Gondry takes extra care to show off the particularly charming, humble and non-stereotypical folks Chappelle invites; we see a lot of the two older white women who sell him cigarettes (“I know I should have bought a thong,” one says while packing for the trip), an enthusiastic young gay black couple who Chappelle found at the golf course (how’s that for busting every possible stereotype of young black men?) and a Drumline-like marching band from Central State University headed by the squarest black man since Urkel.

Intercutting to New York, we see Chappelle interacting with the people who live and work around the block where he’ll be throwing the concert. We see David mess around with kids at the local school, borrow furniture from the local Salvation Army and laugh hysterically at the two aged hippies who live in a practically decomposing old church called the Blood Street Angel. We also see him a bit with the various superstar performers, but not that much, because Gondry’s smart: too much celebrity schmoozing would turn this into Madonna’s Truth or Dare. The performers we see the most of off-stage are the coolest and most down-to-earth – Jill Scott, Wyclef Jean, Mos Def, ?uestlove from The Roots – and we see almost nothing of the clearly large-headed likes of Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and Kanye West, who has elevated arrogance to a higher art. All of this serves two purposes: 1) It makes a star-powered mega-concert seem like just a bunch of cool people hanging out and 2) It makes Dave Chappelle seem like the chillest, most down-to-earth character there is. Not only can he hang with regular folks, celebrities will flock to a sketchy empty lot in Brooklyn to do a concert with him. No mention is made of the stars’ compensation, of course. We wouldn’t want to harsh the vibe.

This all may make it sound like I dislike the movie, which I don’t, or that I’m rather cynical, which I am. The movie was a ton of fun; Chappelle, as usual, turns pretty standard shock humor into comic bling with his ridiculous timing and his embracing smile. The music was absolutely awesome; the highlights for me were Kanye West (I’m a sucker for “Jesus Walks”), Jill Scott, and Big Daddy Kane rapping with the Roots. The guy has to be at least 45 years old, but he still rhymes faster than anyone I’ve ever seen. (Granted, most conversations I’m involved in about modern hip hop peter off after the fifth time I say, “I don’t know it.”) And the lowlights? Lauryn Hill rapping off-beat during a weak Fugees reunion set, Lauryn Hill overemoting every note during a near-solo “Killing Me Softly,” and everyone acting like Lauryn Hill is the second coming of Billie Holiday just because she hasn’t recorded anything in five years. Can anyone explain why celebrities and the entertainment media see not producing art for several years as a surer sign of artistic integrity than regularly working and being prolific?*

All in all, I had, I think, the exact reaction Gondry and Chappelle were going for: laugh your ass off at Chappelle’s offensive antics and bop your head to the literally block-rocking beats. Unlike other concert movies, there’s none of the boring, what’s-the-music-about crap or the self-obsessed moanings of rock stars who are just sick and tired of being so famous. Despite not being a big hip hop fan, it seems like a concert I would have liked to gone to (although I probably wouldn’t have had the balls to take a bus to an unknown location in the ghetto like ticket-holders to the Block Party did, and once there, I would nervously finger my wallet and keys in my pocket, and so would you).

Sure, as a follow-up to Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, it’s not much, a trifle really, and not something I’m ever likely to watch again or think about much (as opposed to Eternal Sunshine, which I think about on a near-daily basis). But it’s a fun, well-made twist on the concert movie. Gleiberman (or was it Schwarzbaum?) got a bit ahead of themselves by giving it an A. It’s almost too lightweight to require a grade. It’s more like one of those extra-credit assignments where all you have to do is make a collage, or that pass-fail wine-tasting class you take in college. If forced to give it a grade, I would give it a Satisfactory Plus.

*I can, actually. It’s all tangled up in our fucked up mix of envy, resentment and respect toward wealth and fame. We envy those who have it, resent those with enough who continue to seek more, and respect those who are willing to walk away from it. Of course, the savviest stars take advantage of this response, and build in breaks into their career (see Bruce Springsteen and Daniel Day-Lewis). That way, they maintain a perpetual appearance of authenticity for their audiences, and therefore add to their own fame, acclaim and wealth. Integrity, calculated or not, is the world’s greatest marketing tool.

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