When you’re filming a documentary in Brooklyn,
anything can happen.
Just ask French filmmaker Michel Gondry, who set out to shoot his new music and comedy concert film, "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party," on the streets of Bed-Stuy and unexpectedly captured one of music history’s most hotly anticipated on-stage reunions, an event witnessed first-hand by thousands of exuberant Brooklynites.
Filmed in 2004, "Block Party" opens in theaters as Chappelle is still trying to explain why he walked away from his hit TV show and a $50-million contract to shoot future episodes. The movie documents a free 2004 block party on Quincy and Downing streets, where Chappelle presents all-new comedy material in between sets performed by Kanye West, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Dead Prez, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, The Roots and Big Daddy Kane and appearances by the Brooklyn Steppers marching band, Ohio’s Central State University marching band and Andre Smith, a rapping waiter from Junior’s Restaurant.
Most notably, however, the party included the first performance in seven years by the popular hip-hop/ reggae group, the Fugees.
"It was really exciting," said Gondry, an award-winning director of commercials and music videos, who also earned great acclaim for helming the 2004 memory-erasing romance, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind."
"It taught me a lot," he told GO Brooklyn. "I was completely open-minded. I said to Dave: ’OK, wherever we go, we don’t know what’s going to happen and that’s the concept of a documentary. We are going to capture whatever happens.’ "
While the Fugees reunion was an example of a great, unplanned moment in the film, Gondry admits there were other times during production that proved less cinematic, particularly when the 32-year-old funnyman returned to his hometown in Ohio to invite some locals to party with him in Brooklyn.
"When we went to Ohio with Dave, we thought there would be a riot, because I saw him in the streets of Brooklyn and everyone came out of everywhere asking for autographs and going crazy," he recalled. "And we went to Ohio, where he lives, and people just nicely say ’hello’ to him. They don’t go crazy, which is why he likes to be therePeople were really relaxed about it, but not much was happening, and I was concerned I was just burning film."
In addition to all of the talent on-stage, Gondry credits the Brooklynites who attended the event for helping to create the film’s extraordinary energy.
"We found heroes in the most unlikely places," the director explained. "When we went into Junior’s, we meet this waiter who just starts to rhyme, and it becomes a high point of the movie."
So, why did Gondry and Chappelle decide to stage the "Block Party" in the Borough of Kings?
"[The decision] was one of my first contributions to the project," said Gondry. "They initially suggested we do something huge in Central Park, and I said it wouldn’t do justice to the music and it wouldn’t matter to the people who lived there. If you do a movie with all these artists, you bring a spotlight to a place. So, you might as well use a place where it matters to the people.
"But here on the streets of Bed-Stuy, in this little area, it meant a lot," he continued. "People were so happy and were so welcoming to us.
"Except for the Salvation Army. For some reason, they didn’t like us after a while."
When another journalist sarcastically wondered aloud, "Now, why would that be?" Gondry replied, "You say that with irony, but do you think you have an insight?"
Standing firm, the reporter opined that maybe the charity thought Chappelle’s profanity-laced comedy might conflict with the notion of salvation.
"It’s a very good thing that you said that," Gondry said, admitting he hadn’t considered the possibility.
Still, even if everyone wasn’t happy to see them, connecting with the community made the comedy and music event a much larger experience, he added.
"By coincidence, [slain Brooklyn rapper] Biggie Smalls had been in this daycare center [we visited] when he was a kid," said the director. "It was amazing to find that out This street of Brooklyn was chosen by Dave because he knew a lot of people from hip-hop came from this areaIt was the perfect background and was representative of hip-hop itself."
Of course, not everyone in the area is a fan of block parties or hip-hop and that had to be dealt with, too, he said. For example, senior couple Arthur and Cynthia Wood, who lived behind the show’s stage, needed a bit of convincing.
"We went to talk to them and she was like, ’The day of the concert, I’m going to take a plane and go on the other side of America because of all this noise,’" Gondry remembered. "But then when she met Dave, that all changed, and they became participants of the concert.
"That’s one of the good things about Dave. People like him so much, he can swear all he wants and people still like him and he brings people together."
"Dave Chappelle’s Block Party" opens in theaters on March 3.
"Chappelle’s Show" airs every night at 9 pm on Comedy Central. The new, third season is slated to begin broadcasting this spring.