#79: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
(USA, 2005; dir. Michel Gondry; cin. Ellen Kuras)
IMDb // My Page

Dave Chappelle's Block Party commemorates a day-long concert held on Saturday, September 18, 2004, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York (think Fires in the Mirror or Do the Right Thing), an intensively planned affair that is nonetheless presented here as off-the-cuff and spontaneous and underground. It's a dazzling rumor sprung to actual life for the web-savvy bloodhounds of young New York, and it's a specially slipped treat to the denizens of the 'hood where it happens, and it's a once-in-a-lifetime teleportation for some of Dave's sidewalk acquaintances in and around Yellow Springs, Ohio, where he spent part of his childhood and now lives most of the year with his wife and kids. Though the film won't tell you that last bit. Ain't the time or the place. We don't look at Dave's house or his baby pictures or hear his wife's accounts of mundane domesticity (you know, "To me, he's just the guy who takes out the garbage!"). Yellow Springs, metonymically expanded here into the nearby small city of Dayton, is a place where Dave can drop into a thrift store or a quick mart and cajole some everyday folk to schlepp out to Brooklyn on a chartered bus to experience a funky-fresh backyard Lollapalooza that he's cooked up for no articulated reason beyond his affection for the Bed-Stuy community, his own fandom of the acts he has convened, and the chance to see what happens when hip-hop, celebrity, and Dave's own spitballs of parodistic and observational comedy are permitted to harmonize for a day with the collective jubilation of a crowd, among whom even the handpicked members only sorta kinda know the details about the jam that Dave has cooked up for them.

I first saw the movie on May 5, 2006, at the Cinestudio movie theater on the Hartford, Connecticut campus of tiny and well-heeled Trinity College, the night before graduation, or maybe the night of graduation, or maybe on the last night of exams. For whatever reason, amidst one of my regular Purple Rose of Cairo delusions, I assumed that the endorphins, the ribaldry, and the merriment promised by the film would be duplicated and reciprocated by a bandying crowd of my students, hitting the full stride of their summers and/or clinging to the last strands of collegiate insulation. As it happened, alone in the balcony of Cinestudio, I could see about six paying customers on the ground floor. Perhaps because I first experienced this raffishly effusive movie in a nearly empty hall, I felt even more poignantly attuned to the undercurrents of nostalgia and bruised optimism that feed like tributaries into the predominating streams of live performance and ecstatic comedy and backstage hucksterism. These accents of maturity and self-reflection, provided by aging eccentrics and a nursery-school administrator and often by Dave and his introspective cohorts, furnished even more layers to what was already a robust emotional experience. The editing also plays a huge role in fostering this affective richness: Sarah Flack, the cutting-room genius who warmed up the hotel's sterile longeurs in Lost in Translation and helped spike the wispy narrative of Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, leads a team of editors who structure the movie as an instant time-capsule, a chronicle of a concert foretold and a remembrance of emcees past, a memory already passing (with joy, with surprise, with call-and-response, with beautifully moderated flamboyance) even as we watch the cross-cut scenes of guests being invited, plans being made, chairs being borrowed, and block residents being charmed out of their wits.

It's a thrillingly made and perfectly judged movie, shot largely on the fly and composed as a sort of exuberant scrapbook by master packrat and handicrafter Michel Gondry—and still the movie is as gorgeous in its colors and enveloping in its soundtrack and as fully adult in its tonal fusions as is any story-boarded, screen-written, studio-nurtured movie I've seen in years. I don't think it got its full critical due in 2006 when it arrived in American theaters, and I can't think of another movie, not even the jazz-centered chapters of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke, that works as heroically to make black artists, hip-hop style, and African-American idioms into an ecstatic emblem not just for "African-American culture" but for American life as a whole, American diversity, American happiness. Post-Katrina, it's hard not to see the movie as one of exceedingly few where black faces and working-class faces (and lots of Latino faces, and a few white faces) are assembled in a spirit of festivity and togetherness, not of abandonment or justifiable anger, even as the rhymes of Dead Prez and Common and others strike some raw ideological nerves.

But let's not get too heavy in here, because one of the movie's sublime joys is that it stays so light on its feet, in its muscles, in its heart, even when it's sounding some important depths. Where have I seen a happiness as distilled as the thunderclap of enthusiasm that the Central State University marching band emits, as they learn that they'll be busing out to Brooklyn to play for some of their heroes? I laugh every time in throat-full, vicarious pleasure. How does Dave get me to laugh during every viewing at his simple and juvenile joke about a man with a tiny penis, and how will I ever make sense out of that Broken Angel house, described by its generous, indescribable, Grey Gardens-ish residents as a building that becomes a helicopter leading up to a huge floating ship that turns into a whale, or something? What is better than watching Erykah Badu concede her battle with the rainstorm wind and yank that three-foot Afro wig right off her tiny head, mid-song? Look at Talib Kweli's clothes; listen to Jill Scott's intensely self-loving sermons about loving others; yell along with those golf-playing brothers of Dayton, Ohio, who are as funny describing a nasty racist incident as they are sidling up to the superstars on Dave's stage. Look how Dave wins a rap battle instantaneously by going off-rhyme and off-rhythm with his smiling takedown of his mohawked competitor's chintzy necklace. And reader, I cried real tears into my Mountain Dew when Dave brought out his surprise guest: "Give it up for a miracle: The Fugees." Who knew I'd missed them this much? And the hot-jam, slow-burn, crouched, flexible, athletic, cocked-hat, brainy beat-making they dropped on the world for a few short years—which already seemed, in the summer of 2006, so long past? Till suddenly, here they were. I'm not going to lie. I danced by myself in my aisle.

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