Dave Chappelle's ''Block Party'' -- The enigmatic comedian makes his return in Michel Gondry's new documentary

By Ken Tucker
February 28, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

Dave Chappelle is a comedian before he is anything else — before he is a pop-culture phenomenon, before he is the creator of piercing critiques of American racism, before he is the self-described paranoid who walked away from a $50 million Comedy Central deal, all the way to Africa. Being funny is Chappelle’s primary mode of existence; it’s as though he was created for the job. His pipe-cleaner-thin body, all wiggly elbows and knees; his often half-lidded eyes and thin smile, which at any moment can scrunch into mock anger or widen into blissed-out delight; his slow, sly drawl of a voice, which lulls you into thinking Dave’s the coolest guy on earth — except for those times when he’s the most wired, tense, unpredictable guy in show business.

Chappelle went on the Feb. 3 Oprah Winfrey Show and on a mid-February edition of Bravo’s Inside the Actors Studio to promote his thrilling new movie, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and seemed prepared for the risks these appearances inevitably entailed. This wasn’t like Steve Martin or Julianne Moore venturing out to plug the product and receive kiss-ups. On Actors Studio, he was compelled to laugh at his own dodgy body of early work, as when that amiable, goateed self-parody known as James Lipton solemnly rumbled, ”…and then you made Half-Baked….” And Winfrey and her audience wanted to know why the comedian had exited from the third season of Chappelle’s Show, a premiere arguably more anticipated than a new batch of Sopranos episodes. Foremost in the Oprah/audience mind-meld: Why’d he vamoose to Africa? Why were people he worked with quoted as saying he had spun out of control? Speaking for America as she so often does (Mr. Chappelle, meet Mr. Frey), Oprah spake thusly: ”It sounds a little crazy.” The stories and rumors Chappelle is obliged to face down now are so utterly at odds with the mood and the extraordinary intimacy of Block Party. It would be a shame if that negative publicity threatens to get in the way of the pleasure — the deep appreciation audiences are likely to have for what Chappelle and his director, Michel Gondry, have created here.

Block Party feels like a cross between The Last Waltz (1978) and Richard Pryor Live in Concert (1979). In September 2004, Chappelle organized in Brooklyn what he says on screen is ”the concert I’ve always wanted to see”: an R&B/hip-hop extravaganza featuring Kanye West, Erykah Badu, the Roots, and a reunited Fugees, among others. The film’s director, Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), has also captured an essence in Chappelle only hinted at on his megastar-making TV show: a generous, openhearted man, one genuinely curious about and fond of all sorts of people. It’s actually spine-tingling just watching him amble around his semirural neighborhood in the vicinity of Dayton, Ohio, joshing with the little old white lady in the store where he buys his morning cigarettes; or to see the delight he takes in offering an entire Ohio college marching band a batch of the Block Party ”golden tickets,” mainly just because they let him hit their drums with silly arrhythmic thwacks and suspects they’ll add something to the eclectic vibe he wants for the Brooklyn concert. Which they do.

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