One of them is a 40-year-old French music-video-visionary-turned-Oscar-winning-writer/director, the other is a 32-year-old raunchy stand-up comic who created one of the hottest shows on basic cable. According to "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" director Michel Gondry, however, he and Dave Chappelle have more in common than you might think.
"He'd seen my music videos; he hadn't seen my movies," Gondry recalled of the unlikely friendship that yielded "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," which is part concert film, part standup concert and hits theaters March 3. "I had done this video for Steriogram ('Walkie Talkie Man') and we watched it together; it's a video where everything is knitted. ... I guess he liked it."
That would be a pretty easy guess, considering that Gondry's dazzling efforts (the White Stripes' all-Lego "Fell in Love With a Girl," for instance) have reduced many of Hollywood's top creative talents (including Jim Carrey and Jack Black) into starry-eyed superfans begging for a collaboration. With "Block Party," however, Gondry has set aside his trademark action figures, miniatures and pop-art-influenced stages for what might be his most daring visual depiction yet: reality.
"The story is that Dave had been doing his show, and he always invites, on the show, artists he likes, like Mos Def," the stick-thin, exuberant auteur continued. "It is where comedy meets performance music. He wanted to do a show; he's very successful, and he wanted to do a show to promote them. Obviously, the common bond between all these bands is that they're trying to say something with their lyrics. It's not only about showing off and bragging. It tends to have a message, and we wanted to put them all together and have this concert."
In summer 2004, then, Chappelle took a few of the enormous paychecks he received from "Chappelle's Show" and threw a party. In the days preceding the event, Chappelle went to some of New York's poorest neighborhoods and handed out golden tickets to the show, Willie Wonka style. Mos Def showed up, as did Kanye West, Jill Scott, John Legend, Common, Big Daddy Kane and dozens of other famous friends. Raindrops fell, people sang along and food was served (see "Fugees — Yes, Even Lauryn — Reunite For Dave Chappelle's Block Party").
Looking back, Gondry is happy to say he was there every step of the way. "People had suggested that he [have the concert in] Central Park. ... My first contribution [was that] I suggested he should go to a place where it would mean more for the people who lived there," Gondry recalled. "That's how we ended up at Fort Greene, which is in Brooklyn."
The timing was perfect for the director, who'd been itching to collaborate with many of the acts that Chappelle happened to choose. "I think hip-hop music is the only popular music now that's moving forward," said Gondry, whose "Sunshine" won him a screenwriting Oscar. "I think alternative rock is really backlogged. I was always very interested to work with hip-hop artists, and it would never happen because I wasn't in the right place at the right time. David contacted me, and he offered me the chance to shoot this concert with all of them at once ... all these guys I'd been worshipping forever."
For Gondry and many of the others in attendance, the highlight of the show was the startling reunion of the Fugees, who hadn't performed together in six years. "It was a very emotional moment when David turned to them, and you can see them coming through the crowd," Gondry beamed. "When they come onstage, you can see the joy they have to be together again. It was really joyful to see that."
For better or worse, "Block Party" received an unexpected dose of extra publicity last year when Chappelle went off the grid, leaving many of his friends and colleagues wondering if he'd ever return to Hollywood (see "Dave Chappelle Speaks: 'I'm Not Crazy; I'm Not Smoking Crack' "). "He didn't really disappear," the director said, insisting that Chappelle always kept in touch with those he considered to be in his corner. "I talked to him every weekend."
Such loyalty might just pay off again in the long term, as Gondry and Chappelle have discussed plans to team up on a more traditional narrative film. "I have some ideas that I'd like to grab him and convince him to do," Gondry grinned.
Check out everything we've got on "Dave Chappelle's Block Party."
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