In Focus

Michel Gondry Gets The 'Party' Started

"Block Party's" Michel Gondry: "All the concert films that have made it down to history were shot in a simple way." (By Carolyn Kaster -- Associated Press)
By Jen Chaney
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, March 3, 2006

Michel Gondry is a hard man to understand.

Not because he makes mind-bending movies about people erasing memories from their brains. Not because he directs music videos that turn alternative rockers into Legos, or fills recording studios with yards of yarn. But because he is, literally, a hard man to understand.

Gondry, 42, occasionally mumbles and sometimes talks quickly, as though he has no time to slow down his thoughts with such formalities as enunciating. And though he speaks English reasonably well, his French accent is still as thick as a slab of brie.

Consequently, as Gondry chats from New York City on a cell phone with somewhat spotty reception, this reporter is frequently tempted to bust out her version of Dave Chappelle impersonating rapper Lil Jon: "HU-WHAT?!" Turns out that's not such a random impulse.

The Versailles native -- whose sophisticated directing style has defined numerous videos and feature films, including 2004's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" -- teamed up with lanky, laugh-riotous comedian Chappelle to create "Dave Chappelle's Block Party." (See review on Page 32.) The concert pic/documentary was directed by Gondry, stars the host of Comedy Central's hugely popular "Chappelle's Show" and features performances by an impressive roster of hip-hop artists. The music fest, occasionally interrupted by stand-up comedy and improv courtesy of Chappelle, was filmed at a massive throw-down on Sept. 18, 2004, in Brooklyn's Bed-Stuy neighborhood, a community that rarely enjoys a day's worth of live rhymes from the luminaries of rap.

Though Chappelle came up with the concert concept, Gondry says he suggested moving it from a traditional venue such as Central Park to a smaller neighborhood. "That was my first contribution," he explains. "I said we should bring it to people for whom it means more."

Another of Gondry's contributions involved subtly persuading Chappelle to release the movie theatrically rather than on DVD.

"I guess he got some financing to produce it and maybe they were [initially] thinking of doing a DVD, but I pushed very hard by shooting on film," says Gondry, who employed nine cameras to capture all the action. "In the theater you feel like you're at a concert."

To achieve that "you-are-there" sensation, Gondry abandoned the signature visual trickery he used in music videos for Bjork, the Chemical Brothers and the Rolling Stones (his cinematic take on the latter's cover of "Like a Rolling Stone" is often cited as one of the first uses of the "bullet time" effect popularized in "The Matrix"). Instead, he took a straightforward approach to documenting the show and tracking Chappelle's pre-concert antics, which include distributing golden tickets to the block party to everyone from marching bands to shop owners in his Ohio home town.

"All the concert films that have made it down to history were shot in a simple way. . . . Otherwise they would distance you from experiencing the concert," the filmmaker says.

In other words, the Fugees don't appear to be made out of Legos like the White Stripes in Gondry's groundbreaking video for "Fell in Love With a Girl." And Chappelle doesn't stroll through his own subconscious, as Jim Carrey did in "Eternal Sunshine."

Chappelle's own spotless mind became the subject of much public speculation last year when he abruptly walked away from his $50 million deal with Comedy Central to take a surprise sabbatical in Africa. The ensuing media coverage suggested Chappelle was either on drugs or just plain nuts, allegations the comic has categorically denied, most recently on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and during a two-hour installment of "Inside the Actors Studio."

"I didn't find it distracting," Gondry says of the controversy. "We kept working [on the movie]. . . . Sometimes he was hard to reach, but other than that I didn't think much about what was going on. I'm used to rumors versus what's in reality."

Gondry's unconventional creativity will no doubt rise to the surface again in "The Science of Sleep," his film about the blurry lines between reality and fantasy that is slated for theatrical release this fall. But even with his many motion picture projects, Gondry has no plans to abandon the music-video genre that provided a foundation for creating compelling concert cinema.

"It's very good to keep in touch with music," Gondry notes, perfectly clearly we might add, as the cell phone chat comes to a close. "It's moving faster than the film world. It's more in touch with reality."

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