Largely inspired by the 1973 concert film Wattstax, Block Party opens with Chappelle helping two old men in downtown Dayton, Ohio repair their stalled car on the side of the road. Seeing Chappelle riff with two old men is a reminder of the opening of his now-defunct series and is not the last time that the film recalls the show that made Chappelle a superstar. But there is something wholly different, raw and improvisational about Block Party that propels it through its 120 minutes with a feeling that anything can, and will, happen.
For instance, as Chappelle watches the two old men try to fix their car, a marching band slowly rolls into frame behind him. At first, the band is just a funny obstacle to the old men' ability to hear one another, but Gondry then uses the band as the musical backdrop for the film's introduction, with Chappelle introducing performers through a megaphone. Chappelle goes on to chase after the Step Marching Band and invite them along to Brooklyn, where they perform a kick-ass version of "Jesus Walks" for Kanye West. The evolution of the band' role from comedic prop, to background music, to characters within the story is a great example of the freewheeling way that the film unfolds.
The connection between improvisational comedy and improvisational music is on display throughout the film. At one point, Chappelle observes that "All comedians want to be musicians, and all musicians think they're funny" and later advises aspiring comedians to listen to Thelonious Monk to learn about timing. Watching Chappelle improvise on stage or in a back room, telling jokes over slow drumbeats, the parallel is undeniable (as is the fact that he's most likely stoned out of his gourd).
Block Party has some great moments, and tends to be at its best when Chappelle' comedy comes together with the great music on display. For instance there is a great game of musical Simon-says with The Roots giving Chapelle a James Brown-style stinger every time he says "hit me," despite the comedian' best efforts to screw them up. Another great moment comes when Chappelle tells momma jokes to Mos Def, who keeps time on the drums, their banter lending the whole affair a playful, breezy vibe.
Throughout the film, Chappelle is in complete control of the audience, not only at the actual Block Party, but the audience in the theater as well. There' no hint of the tormented, reclusive, paranoid guy that supposedly killed Chappelle' Show, just the easy, ambling comedian that audiences love, making observations in his flat Midwestern drawl and smoking what is quickly becoming a trademark cigarette.
And then there is the music. If you are a hip-hop fan, do not-I repeat, do not-wait for Block Party to come out on DVD. Block Party is one of the best concerts ever to hit the big screen. If someone asked me for a list of the five best concerts I've been to in the past year, I would have a tough time not including the experience of watching Block Party in the theater (and, not to brag or anything, but I've been to at least two concerts this year). The energy is so palpable, the performances are so on point and the sound quality is so perfect that you won't be able to keep your head from nodding or your heel from stomping. (Our sources tell us that Ebert actually caught Roeper doing the Rockaway.)
But even if you're the sort of person who fast-forwards through the musical performances on your Chappelle' Show DVDs, see the film for Chappelle's virtuosic performance. While it won't make you stop missing Chappelle' Show, it will definitely reassure you that this guy knows exactly what he' doing.