MPI // 2009 // 135 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // January 27th, 2010
"It's all right!"
Passing Strange is an autobiographical musical by Stew (of the band The Negro Program), who wrote the lyrics and book and collaborated on music and orchestrations with Heidi Rodewald. The musical was developed over two years at the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab, and slowly made its way up the theatre food chain, premiering in Berkeley, California before moving to Off-Broadway and culminating with 165 performances at Broadway's Belasco Theatre in 2008.
Passing Strange: The Movie is not an adaptation of the stage show, but a filmed performance, directed by Spike Lee (Inside Man). It was shot in February 2008 and incorporates footage from its final three performances.
The show is a retelling of a young black man's travels to Europe, where he yearns to discover who he is as a man and his sensibilities as an artist; or, as he calls it, "the real." The story is divided into three sections: the young man stifled in his churchgoing, middle-class upbringing in Los Angeles; his sexual awakening in Amsterdam; and finally, an artistic awakening in Berlin. Stew observes the action, narrating the plot, and occasionally bursts into song.
To be clear, Passing Strange is a rock musical, not a traditional song-and-dance production. Indeed, this show does rock. There is a four-piece band on stage at almost all times, serving as accompaniment to both Stew (who also plays guitar) and songs sung by the principal cast. Perhaps befitting this new genre, Passing Strange, while earnest in its storytelling, never takes itself too seriously and provides several opportunities for the audience to laugh and rock out.
While there are several humorous moments, and some great songs, this coming-of-age story is not a gimmick. It is earnest and often poignant. In the Los Angeles setting, Stew's doppelganger attempts to find meaning in the church are complicated by his relationship with a pot-smoking, homosexual minister. In Amsterdam, the young man briefly finds fulfillment in casual sex, but learns how fleeting that fulfillment can be. Of the many notable songs here, one of the best is "We Just Had Sex," a hilarious caricature of bohemian Europe's openness to sexuality. In Berlin, he falls under the spell of pretentious Sprockets-style German avant-garde artists before recognizing them for the poseurs they are. While few will have had the same experiences, I think most of us took similar journeys to adulthood, and will find much to relate to. For example, the young man's time in Germany reminded me of a time in college when a girl convinced me that Plastic Ono Band was vastly superior to the Beatles.
Ultimately, the decision to record the stage performance was a wise one. Anyone who's seen Rent on stage and the film know how much can be lost in the adaptation process. Also, there is an energy from the crowd that can be infectious, especially when Stew gets them all to stand up and sing along with him. That said, filming a stage show does have its liabilities. With Lee's frequent use of close-ups we are unable to see the responses of the other actors. Also, the close-ups can become distracting when actors become sweaty under the hot stage lights.
Still, the greatness of the stage show has been captured in this movie. While I imagine nothing could beat seeing it in person, Spike Lee's Passing Strange does a commendable job of preserving that experience for posterity.
The DVD's video image is not incredibly strong. The show has many dark scenes and the shadows are often murky and the blacks don't show enough contrast. I have to imagine that Lee was a bit constrained in lighting and filming options though, so I can't be too harsh on him here.
The audio, however, is fantastic. The 5.1 mix allows the music and actors to be dispersed throughout the speakers, and this is like having a front-row seat to a rock concert. You won't just be tapping your foot to the music here, you're going to want to get up and move.
There are no substantial extras, but a lot of short behind-the-scenes footage of the actors and an interview with Stew and his collaborator, Rosewald.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 135 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated