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Life of the Party

Dave Chappelle proves he may be more powerful than Black Bush with his audacious Brooklyn "Block Party."


"Block Party" is funny, even if it's not as funny as the TV show. But that's not the reason that makes it hard to transcribe. Most of the funny sequences feature Chappelle wading out into his adoring public like his colleagues Letterman and Leno, and they at least appear to be off-the-cuff. They rely even more on his genius for body language, facial expression and vocal inflection, which he uses to pump a modestly humorous bit into a sensationally funny joke.

The movie opens, and there he is in his hometown of Yellow Springs, Ohio, walking up on an unsuspecting couple of locals trying to get a stubborn car started. The man hunched over the engine asks the other to try starting it again. Dave merely bends a certain way and raises an eyebrow over the sound of the reluctant ignition, and chuckles ripple through the theater.

The man over the engine asks the other, "How much of that stuff did you spray in there?" The man behind the wheel is elderly and doesn't seem to hear. Chappelle raises a megaphone he's been holding: "HOW MUCH OF THAT STUFF DID YOU SPRAY IN THERE?" The theater explodes in laughter.

An expert in timing and rhythm, Chappelle (and director Michel Gondry) leaves us by the end credits wanting more of this man-on-the-street stuff sprayed into the movie, but two-thirds of it is concert footage of the musicians who performed at the show. The $50 million man (that was the reported sum of a colossal contract he signed with Comedy Central) was able to assemble an impressive roster of pop artists. All are of Chappelle's taste (hip-hop/soul): The Roots, Kanye West, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott and a slew of others, including The Fugees, who reunited after a long separation just to play this show.

The movie is structured to ward off monotony of taped musical performances, taking us back and forth and back again to show the concert, the rehearsal of the performances and the scouting of the location, an odd square in the Bedford-Stuyvesant ("Bed-Stuy" to locals) area of Brooklyn. It also shows snippets of Chappelle spending a few days before the show in his hometown, selecting Yellow Springs denizens on whom to bestow all-expense-paid trips to the party. It's a sleepy municipality, and needless to say, many of the jokes land here.

One old-timer politely refuses the trip. He says he doesn't mind rap music, but the fact is, he just doesn't hear very well. Later, Chappelle happens to run into a local high school's marching band, which he invites to perform. It's a great moment in black history, he says, announcing the band's leader: "We've found the first black man named Millsap."

For most people, the lure of Chappelle and performing artists like West will be enough to bring them to this concert film. "Block Party" is a byproduct of "The Chappelle Show," which almost always ended with a performance by a hip-hop star or urban group. Chappelle seems to use these tried-and-true television variety show segments more often than not to pimp a lesser-known name like Talib Kweli. "Block Party" offers viewers underground stars like Common and Dead Prez — the latter, Chappelle says, would never make it onto radio with its politically charged lyrics. (In case that didn't give his show enough edge, Chappelle even brings Fred Hampton Jr., son of the slain Black Panther leader, to the stage for a moment of protest.)

Chappelle explains this amalgam of politics, comedy and music as a logical outcome: All comedians want to be musicians, he says, and all musicians think they're funny. (It's left as self-evident that everyone should want to be political.) Chappelle mentions Mos Def as one of those who successfully cross over, but we don't see it. At least in the final edited version, Chappelle is the star, the only celebrity who gets to perform a song and crack wise. When he says he can play only one tune on the piano and has "managed to talk myself into a fortune," it's all meant for laughs. "Block Party" is proof that the ringmaster can bring together an audacious assemblage of talent. Though it's "Chappelle Show"-lite, it's also great fun, a snack for those starved for Chappelle's return to television. (R) 103 min. **** S


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