One of America’s best living filmmakers, Spike Lee, is also one of its most versatile, equally comfortable making fiction films, documentaries, shorts, and TV movies. Every now and then, he even puts his talent and production team to work in the service of someone else’s vision, creating a film that’s more document than documentary.
He did that in Freak, a film of John Leguizamo’s one-man show of the same name. And he’s done it again with Passing Strange. “Don’t fuck it up—that was really the motto,” Lee says in an IFC interview about his latest movie, which records a rock musical that closed this year. “My nightmare was they’d say, ’I saw it at the Public, I saw it on Broadway, but that shit Spike did was fucked up!’”
Passing Strange was conceived and written by Stew (a musician whose full name is Mark Stewart) and his musical partner Heidi Rodewald, both of whom also appear in the play and the movie. Loosely based on Stew’s adolescence, it is the story of a middle-class black kid (the excellent Daniel Breaker), who leaves Los Angeles for Europe to search for “the real.” A big part of that search involves breaking free of the stereotypes and expectations he chafed under back home—although, in one funny sequence, he winds up acting “ghetto” to win acceptance from the vaguely anarchic young artists he takes up with in Berlin.
Stew serves as a kind of onstage stage director/narrator, playing guitar, singing, and sometimes stepping in to interact with one of the actors or to comment on something they’ve said or done. He views Breaker with as much exasperation as affection, and he doesn’t shy away from showing the character’s youthful ruthlessness and naïveté. “It’s weird when you wake up one morning and realize your entire adult life is based on decisions made by a teenager,” he says toward the end of the play. “A stoned teenager.”
But the grace of the play comes from the way Stew accepts, even celebrates his younger self’s foolishness and frailty. In embracing his messy humanity, he gives us all tacit permission to do the same with our own.
It’s easy to see why Lee might have been attracted to the material. As Stew told Giant magazine, both he and Spike like the fact that its story is “specific yet universal. I think he also likes the fact that we have an obsession with the idea that black culture is not monolithic. Ultimately though, it’s the story of the artist and that’s what Spike gravitated towards. Also he’s a music guy.”
Lee probably also appreciated the quality of the production, starting with the almost universally stellar acting by Breaker, Eisa Davis as his mother, and four other actors—De’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones—who play three characters each.
The play started at the Public Theater before moving to Broadway. A friend of mine who saw it at both places liked the Public better, since the more intimate space worked better with the highly personal story and the parts where the cast interacts directly with the audience. I only saw it on Broadway, so I can only guess, but I imagine Lee’s film restores the intimacy that was lost in that move—and then some.
Other things change in the translation from one medium to another, of course. Lee’s cameras are able to take us briefly backstage with the jazzed-up cast during intermission, and he encouraged them to do an ecstatic reprise of “It’s All Right Now,” a song sung earlier in the play, at the finale. Watching the cast members bounce off of and embrace one another in those unscripted intervals adds another layer to the performance, letting us see something of what it meant to the actors themselves.
It’s a real treat, too, to be able to zoom in on their faces. So much of the story is about relationships or intense feelings, and the actors do a lot of finely calibrated emoting that wasn’t visible from my seat at the Belasco. Lee also made the band more prominent, having them stand up for one of the three performances he filmed so you see more of them than you did in the play, where each musician was mostly concealed in his or her own personal orchestra pit. That was a smart move, since their pulsating music blankets the production and sets its tone so thoroughly that Stew refers to the actors as “the other members of the band.”
But sometimes the camera feels intrusive. The close-ups of Jones made me like her performance less, showcasing exaggerated, often bug-eyed expressions that look like mugging on camera but didn’t bother me at a distance. I didn’t like it when the movie cut from one actor to another during high-energy group scenes rather than showing the group as a whole, chopping a portrait of widespread chaos or abandon into a series of individual shots.
The movie couldn’t quite capture the thrill I felt in the theater when the actors came off the stage and into the audience, either. And though I generally found it added to my enjoyment to hear, and sometimes see, the theatrical audience on film, it occasionally got in the way, making me hyper-aware of the differing reactions between them and the people in the movie theater.
But overall, Lee and his collaborators did the play proud, honoring its structure and rhythms. On film as in person, Passing Strange left me full of exhilaration—with an added sense of gratitude to the 40 Acres and a Mule crew.
Lee and his crew have preserved a joyful production that would otherwise be just a memory now. Capturing life as it happens may be the most primitive thing the movies are capable of, but done right, it’s still magic.
Elise Nakhnikian is a contributor to Time OFF.