As I’m gearing up for the 2010 Sundance Film Festival in a few weeks, I’m catching up on a few films I’ve missed at festivals over the last year, and one of those that I missed at both Sundance and SXSW was Spike Lee’s“Passing Strange,” thanks to scheduling issues both times.
Lee filmed the final three performances of the musical during its run at the Belasco Theater in New York, and the result is an electrifying movie that’s somewhere between a concert film and a theatrical presentation. Stew is the man behind the piece, and that’s his entire stage name. Stew. He wrote the book and the lyrics and co-wrote the music with Heidi Rodewald, and the two of them are onstage performing the music along with a very tight band made up of Christian Cassan, Christian Gibbs, and John Purney. The entire piece is performed by a very small cast, many of them playing multiple roles, but Daniel Breaker stars as “Youth,” a not-terribly fictionalized version of Stew, and the musical traces his life growing up in South Central Los Angeles, desperate to get out and go anywhere else, do anything else. He’s in search of “the real,” authentic experience and emotion that he’s sure is out there somewhere, and he’s willing to devastate his mother and climb over every single person who ever offers him any authentic affection in order to chase it. What’s amazing about the piece is how completely unsympathetic Stew’s portrayal of himself is. He honestly believes in the power of art to transform the world, but he also seems to believe that he made a lot of mistakes in his pursuit of it over the years, and he doesn’t let himself off the hook or try to make himself look good.
The music is solid, and for the first half of the piece, I was enjoying it but never quite blown away. Then Youth gets to Amsterdam, and there’s a number that starts with De’Adre Aziza giving him her keys that erupts into one of most joyous celebrations I’ve ever seen in a theater. It’s an amazing, lift you off your seat moment that just keeps building and building, and it’s revived at the end of the piece as well. It elevates “Passing Strange” from “very good and worth seeing” to “oh my god, am I going to do my best to make sure certain people see this as soon as possible,” and it makes me sorry I didn’t see this in time for it to qualify for my 2009 “Best Of” list.
When “RENT” was getting ready to close, they filmed the last performance, and that felt to me when I saw it like a victory lap, a cast patting themselves on the back for having such a long run. There’s none of that here with “Passing Strange.” This is a well-oiled cast that has gotten great at what they’re doing, but they aren’t coasting at all. This is alive, electric, rich with feeling. Stew’s voice is incredible, and listening to him tell his own story without flinching just makes me realize anew that art’s value is impossible to measure on either a cultural or a personal level. We can debate it, we can argue about it, but in the end, for each person, especially the people who made it, art can literally save a life or define or change it a dozen times over, and when someone takes all of their experience and offers it up in as pure and powerful a way as Stew did in “Passing Strange,” it’s absolutely worth capturing.
Spike Lee was smart enough to simply capture the performance rather than trying to impose much of a directorial style on it, and Matthew Libatique has done remarkable work in making you feel like you have a seat on-stage. These performers are working their asses off, and you see each and every drop of sweat they spill along the way. It’s a simple film, technically speaking, but deceptively so. Shooting a live performance can be a nightmare, and Lee and Libatique make it look effortless.
It’s all right. It’s all right, indeed.
“Passing Strange” hits DVD on January 12 from IFC Films, and it is a can’t miss.
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