It's doubtful audiences would respond as favorably to the anger in Dave Chappelle's comedy if it weren't offset by such an infectious sense of joy. Happiness verging on bliss is the dominant emotion in his charming new musical-concert documentary Block Party. This rare sense of wonder at life's infinite possibilities is what unites Chappelle with the work of Michel Gondry, a filmmaker on unusually good terms with his inner child.
Chappelle's name has been preceded by the phrase "troubled comedian" lately, but while there are hints of darkness at the edges of Block Party, filmed before his unexpected departure from his Comedy Central series, he seems overjoyed to be playing Pied Piper to the thousands of fans he invited to a historic Brooklyn "party" featuring a who's who of progressive rap and R&B luminaries. His sly smile and conspiratorial laugh working overtime, Chappelle can barely contain his excitement as he interacts with star-struck fans in Ohio, his favorite artists (Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Erykah Badu, Kanye West), and a college marching band he invites to perform at the big show.
Chappelle serves as host and ringmaster, and the film has a curious way of upstaging his musical idols. The impeccable lineup is tilted heavily toward the neo-soul and Okayplayer contingents led by The Roots' ?uestlove, whose giant Afro and beard serve as a funky visual exclamation point to the proceedings. Block Party is largely a giant love-fest, which is fitting given the staggering amount of simpatico musical and comic talent on display, though some conflict surfaces nevertheless. There's a riveting moment when The Roots are performing "You Got Me" with Jill Scott, who wrote the song's haunting hook, but was passed over for singing duties on the recorded version for the more established Erykah Badu. Scott enacts her tardy revenge here by singing on the song onstage, only to have ?uestlove wave a seemingly hesitant Badu onstage to sing along. Badu and Scott then battle for control of the song, and there's a bracing, exhilarating tension in watching the two divas duke it out. Chappelle incidentally funded the concert out of pocket, but probably made his money back and more once the resulting film was sold. Altruism is well and good, but it never hurts to make a tidy profit in the process.