Spike Lee's film version of 'Passing Strange' arrives on DVD
Does the acclaimed filmmaker do the right thing by the acclaimed musical?
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.
Can't get enough of Motion/Captured? Don't miss a post with daily HitFix Blog Alerts. Sign up now.
Don't miss out. Add Motion/Captured to your iGoogle, My Yahoo or My MSN experience by clicking here.
Not part of the HitFix Nation yet? Take 90 seconds and sign up today.
News From Our Partners
- Cannes Film Festival: Cannes 2013, Day Eight: Blue Is The Warmest Color captures a relationship’s rawness and beauty Hear This: Pantera’s “Walk” is the cry of aggrieved, disaffected youth Watch This: Vanishing Point caters to car nuts and existentialists alike
- WATCH: Jon Stewart Shuts Down Bill O'Reilly '900 Pound Man: The Race Against Time': Is It Too Late? Ashley Benson Is Not Dating All Of Her Friends
- 'Rush' Trailer: The Risk of Death Turns People On Need for Speed Rivals Will Race onto Xbox One and PlayStation 4 Sonic: Lost World's Six New Characters are Teased
- What to Watch Tonight: The Season Premiere of Rookie Blue and the Series Premieres of Save Me, Showville, and Does Someone Have to Go? Nashville Season Finale Review: Funerals, Proposals, Car Accidents, Oh My? What to Watch Tonight: The Season Finales of SVU, The Middle, Modern Family, Chicago Fire, Nashville, and Criminal Minds
- Weekend Movies: 'The Hangover 3,' 'Fast & Furious 6,' & 'Epic' (VIDEO) 'Dazed and Confused' Sequel: Richard Linklater Says It May Shoot This Fall Morgan Freeman Falls Asleep During Interview for New Movie
- 'Hangover III': The Reviews Are In! Jennifer Aniston Breaks Bad, Strips Down In 'We're The Millers' Trailer 'Star Wars' Fans Still Love To Hate Ewoks 30 Years Later
- Former Cast Member Bill Hader Reveals Justin Bieber Was Diva on 'SNL' Set Rihanna vs. Nicki Minaj: Which Diva Has the Best Booty? – Readers Poll Rita Ora Dyes Her Hair Bright Blue [Pics]
- The Telefile - Modern Family: Goodnight, Gracie. Hello, Series Highlight. The Telefile - Critics' Choice Television Awards 2013: Nominees Announced The Telefile - TV on DVD: Tuesday, May 21, 2013
They can both use the same character, but will it be worth it?Thursday, May 23, 2013
Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat talk about returning to the roles of loving cousins for 'Arrested Development'Our conversation was an afternoon delightThursday, May 23, 2013
One of the emotional lynchpins of the series discusses the newest filmWednesday, May 22, 2013
Two of the supporting characters from the trilogy weigh in on saying goodbyeWednesday, May 22, 2013