"Don't look at me like I'm crazy," says the host and emcee of this enjoyably shambling documentary about the making of a concert movie. In case you haven't heard, that you-know-what is crazy! . . . crazy if you take certain media reports to heart, crazy in the tradition of Richard Pryor during his flame-out years, crazy in a certain self-calculating, fuck-it-all approach to career, Hollywood, and white audience acceptance. A good deal of the fun here, as we follow Chappelle from his small-town Ohio retreat to Brooklyn, where he staged his one-day block party in September 2004, is to see how fully he's got his wits about him. He wanders around Dayton handing out "golden tickets" to the shindig, laughingly comparing himself to Willy Wonka. (If only he'd had that role in Tim Burton's acid-confectionary movie.) He spontaneously recruits the marching band from all-black Central State University to perform at the gig. He even tries on a few pimp outfits and says "bitch" for the mirror. (Give the people what they want, especially if they can't have it on Comedy Central, where he's still AWOL.)
I don't have Bravo or cable, but apparently Chappelle's been doing penance with James Lipton and Oprah. His Block Party also seems like a recuperative effort, a restorative retreat to the let's-put-on-a-show spirit of Wattstax. He enlists some of his favorite musicians, including Kanye West, Mos Def, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, the Roots, and the Fugees (reunited this once after almost eight years). He doesn't advertise the free show, letting a smart mob assemble via Web, then take yellow school buses to the secret location (in Bed-Stuy, home turf to Biggie Smalls and other hip-hop luminaries). He also abstains from doing much stand-up for the somewhat sodden crowd (it rains for part of the show), saving most of the comedy for the backstage camera and his man-in-the-street stuff before the event.
Director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) puts a fairly loose weave to all these strands: preshow and during, interviews and rehearsed bits, Chappelle both pensive and on. Block Party doesn't have much chronological shape to it, but eventually more songs are heard more or less in their entirety, and the evening leads up to the Fugees' reunion. I can only wonder how much extra material will be on the DVD, and I only have two mild criticisms about the project. First, we don't spend enough time on the individual stories of the Ohio fans, the CSU students, the Bed-Stuy locals, or Chappelle himself—who talks of dropping the mask of celebrity, though I'm not sure he ever does here. (The DVD should help, of course.) Second, would it have killed Gondry to lay some credits on-screen identifying the many musicians? Quick—was that Cody Chestnutt or Roots drummer Ahmir Thompson? Was that John Legend joining Kanye West on "Jesus Walks"? I'd say the same thing for a doc about assembled jazz greats or symphony musicians: When you're cutting this fast between unfamiliar faces, help the viewer out a little.
Still, when Gondry turns his lens to the crowd and you see all those hands waving cell phone cameras, there's no doubt the fans know each face and name. A little rain couldn't spoil this Party.