Passing Strange ****
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written By: Stew.
Starring: Stew (Narrator), Daniel Breaker (Youth), Eisa Davis (Mother), De'Adre Aziza (Edwina / Marianna / Sudabey), Colman Domingo (Mr.Franklin / Joop / Mr. Venus), Chad Goodridge (Rev. Jones / Terry / Christophe / Hugo), Rebecca Naomi Jones (Sherry / Renata / Desi).
I’m not quite sure how Spike Lee managed it, but his movie Passing Strange is perhaps the only time I have ever seen a Broadway show recorded for a movie that feels genuinely cinematic. Most times when direct make a movie out of a stage show – placing cameras around the theater to capture the actors as they perform, the result feels very much stage bound. But Lee’s film soars. Part of that is the terrific energy of the cast, and the fact that Stew’s Passing Strange is one of the best rock musicals in history. But Lee found a way to capture that energy, that passion and take it from the stage and put it on screen. It is one of the greatest achievements of his career.
The Broadway was show was written by Stew, who based the story on his own life, and shows up in the play as the narrator who provides context, and insight into the action (he often mocks his younger self). The young Stew at the center is played by Daniel Breaker who was born and raised in Los Angeles by his single mother, who like all mothers annoys her son with requests to accompany her to church and other requests. As a teenager, all he wants to do is get out. He joins the church choir, where the man in charge gets him high, and talks all about “the real”. The real life, instead of all the fake stuff they are living in. As soon as he can, he flees LA for Europe. In Amsterdam, he stays with a group of free love type hippies, and lives in sexual bliss for a while, until he realizes that it is boring. He then moves onto Berlin, and falls in with a group of radical anti-capitalists. All the while, his mother stays in LA and occasionally calls him to try and get him to come home. But he is too busy looking for “the real” to listen to his mother.
The play is fast paced, hilarious, insightful and contains some of the best music I have ever heard in a Broadway show. Aside for Stew, Breaker and Eisa Davis, who plays the mother, the rest of the cast consists of four people – De’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones, who all play multiple roles to perfection, and of course the band who occasionally provide some commentary on the proceeding (the most memorable of which happens when the keyboard player speaks up in defense of The Clash, only to be shouted down by one of the German extremists).
The energy of the cast is infectious. They pore themselves into every role, and come up with interesting, distinct characters. The music is even better – strong, hard rock songs with an underlying message of hope and forgiveness. Lee and his cinematographer, Matthew Libatique, do a marvelous job of capturing this show at its peak.
But the movie is more than just energy and music. Often musicals are just enjoyable pieces of fluff – sound and fury signifying nothing. But Passing Strange has emotional depth and insight. The Youth passes himself as more “black” then he actually is in Berlin, to make him seem hipper and edgier. When he is confronted by his cohorts about what makes him so dangerous, he goes on a long tirade of being kept down by “the man” in LA and how he had to hustle for dimes in the hard streets of South Central LA (making Stew observe – “No one in this play knows what it’s like to hustle dimes on the streets of South Central LA”). The scenes in Amsterdam and Berlin (especially Berlin) poke fun at the stereotypes of the era (including a radical feminist who makes porno films in which “fully clothed men make business deals”), but they have a point. Stew’s show actually means something – it’s not just a group of songs.
Lee is a gifted visual filmmaker. I remember reading an interview he did with Roger Ebert where he said he hated movies that were just photographed conversations. In Passing Strange, he set himself a big challenge – filming a Broadway show, and making it a genuine cinematic experience. With the help of his cinematographer and editor, Lee accomplished it. Passing Strange ranks among the very best films of Lee’s career.