Adapted from the Tony-winning Broadway production of the same name, this filmed performance of Passing Strange is a worthy public record of a show most people nationwide didn’t get the chance to see. Shot during the musical’s closing night, with additional scenes filmed in the days immediately following, it might inspire jealousy in anyone unable to have caught it on the Great White Way, especially since this semi-autobiographical tale about a young black musician and his vivid travels from middle-class South Central to the artistic free zones of Amsterdam and Berlin isn’t your standard-issue musical theater; it’s like watching a rock concert or a gospel revival.
The narrator and composer, Stew, has a touch of the rock star in his being, but also a bit of the pulpit minister, the unreliable biographer who doubles back on himself and his own shortcomings. Standing there with his five-person band in the center of the stage, he’s a winning and captivating presence right from the get-go, leading us through the story as the minimalist theater space is transformed into various guises—starting with a pious, stiflingly all-American Los Angeles with vague undercurrents of casual, almost chaste drug use under the surface. Playing Stew as a young man, Daniel Breaker conveys the ambition, ideals, and naïve selfishness that comes with the pursuit of “the real” (and Stew, who remains on stage for the entire show, winks and winces empathetically at the pretensions of his younger self).
It’s a bit of a slow start as the character grapples with his mommy issues, but by the time the story shifts to the drug-fueled bacchanalia of Amsterdam and the various fleeting romances our hero has there, followed by a stint in Berlin where he redefines himself for the politically charged, artistically tenacious, and borderline humorless German art scene as an “angry black man from the ghetto,” Passing Strange has woven itself into a rock ‘n roll memory walk—a touching story about a confused young man who tells lies about himself, and ultimately forgets himself, in an attempt to find his identity. It’s a complex web, where the line between personal freedom and wearing a mask to hide one’s true face becomes a soul-crushing blur.
Thematically deep and musically strong, Passing Strange is the kind of show that makes you want to get on your feet, jump around and make noise, but never allows showy spectacle to get in the way of a surprisingly rich character portrait. When the show explodes into music, the audience responds fully, which unfortunately can’t translate into the movie-watching experience, where we remain passive. Director Spike Lee mostly films the action at the ground level, simply trying to recreate the experience of the show, but sometimes gets in his own way by trying to spice up the images with gratuitous crane shots and overheads that swoop over the actors. It’s a distracting bit of razzle-dazzle for a show that already does that on its own.
If Passing Strange has any major shortcoming, it’s that it never feels like it’s meant for the screen (and unlike, say, Stop Making Sense, it doesn’t get transformed into a full cinematic experience), but that shouldn’t prevent you from vicariously experiencing the magic of a really good, smart, engaging piece of filmed theater. When the narrator and his surrogate self reach a moment of mutual epiphany at the end, combined with more than a little self-loathing, it’s as poignant a moment as any we’ll see at the movies this year.