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A year and a half ago, as word quickly circulated via radio and the Internet that Dave Chappelle was putting together a concert in Brooklyn, and that it would feature alternative-neo-indie Negro artists like the Roots, Erykah Badu, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Common, Mos Def, Kanye West — and maybe Lauryn Hill — fan excitement grew to slightly hysterical proportions. Though many of these artists had worked together in the past, never before had so many icons of conscious/progressive/please-God-let-me-just-recoup-the-advance black music shared the same stage. And while Chappelle has said that he was merely staging the concert of his dreams, the combination of elements assembled by the comedian — music with lyrics steeped in black resistance and triumph; personas spun from nationalistic politics; images spanning kufi to ’fro to beads and ankhs — suggested what he was really after was a hip-hop replication of the crackling black consciousness that had defined Wattstax, the landmark 1972 benefit concert frequently referred to as the black Woodstock. Once news trickled out that the Wattstax model was being followed even more closely — that a film would be shot of the concert in a conscious attempt to both honor and make history, with groundbreaking music-video auteur Michel Gondry at the helm — you could all but hear the sound of fans fainting onto their keyboards.
So, does the final product justify the hype? Yes, definitely — and no, not quite. Block Party was shot on film instead of digital because, as Gondry states in press notes, “Film still has much more detail than video,” but also likely because, for all the hip cachet attached to video, film continues to carry a prestige and artistic currency that video doesn’t. That choice results in moments of real beauty that make you grateful Chappelle chose an aesthete for directing chores. And yet, in terms of content, the film doesn’t quite reach the bar set by its historic predecessor.
Featuring a career-peak Richard Pryor as host/Greek Chorus and with the not-too-distant flames from the Watts riots illuminating the man-on-the-street interviews woven throughout the concert footage, Wattstax the movie was an angry, beautiful and pointed political work in which race, class and gender warfare stood front and center. Block Party is a celebration of blackness taking place in a differently complicated time, when marketing concerns demand consideration of whiteness and white-fan comfort in ways that weren’t factors for an earlier era of black expression. While issues of poverty, police brutality and education, in addition to race, are touched on in both semiserious dialogue and hilarious comedy?bits, some of the weightiest political commentary in the film comes from backstage conversations between artists discussing their struggles to do what they do without risk of compromise or misunderstanding. There’s much foreshadowing here of Chappelle’s own controversial break with both Comedy Central and some lifelong friends. Meanwhile, the Roots’ Questlove speaks about the conundrum of looking out into an audience and seeing no one that looks like you. He notes that it’s a situation shared by many of the artists on the bill, whose music often draws larger white audiences than black.
Block Party puts Chappelle (who co-produced the movie) in the host position, and he’s very funny — doing a Spanish version of Lil’ Jon and playing bongos onstage in a spoof of spoken-word nonsense; improvising with the concert audience; ruminating on social issues in short, pungent jabs, not the often-devastating long strokes that Pryor delivered. Still, compared to the prickly, no-holds-barred material that propelled Chappelle’s TV show into a cultural phenomenon, Block Party too frequently pulls its punches, as if the comedian and his friends were being held back by considerations of self-protection and career management.
With the exception of the animated opening credits, Gondry doesn’t display the whimsy or sense of fantasy that might be expected by his fans. Working with Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind cinematographer Ellen Kuras and a team of documentary units, he shoots in a pretty straightforward manner, but he keeps things moving at a clip, and the captured performances are uniformly strong, sometimes spectacular: Dead Prez doing a very funky, crowd-rousing “Turn Off the Radio”; Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli ripping through their set; Erykah Badu gingerly feeling her way into the Jill Scott and Roots performance of “You Got Me”; and the Fugees blowing the crowd away with their surprise reunion appearance. Backstage interviews, pre-show jam sessions and rehearsals show a warm camaraderie between the artists, providing some of the film’s highlights. The problem is that Gondry tries to cram in so much that most of the artists end up with truncated or annoyingly interrupted sets, while the occasionally rapid-fire cutting diminishes the surprise of some wonderfully unscripted moments, as when the wind threatens to lift Badu’s massive Afro wig off her head and she finally whips it off in frustration. At times like that, you can’t help but feel that it is in the unhurried, option-laden possibilities of DVD bonuses that the real Block Party lies.
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