In rethinking the Tony-winning 2008 rock musical Passing Strange for the screen, director Spike Lee made sure to do the right thing: not fuck up what worked like gangbusters onstage. Lee and the masterful cinematographer Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, Inside Man) brought their HD cameras to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre to film two live performances with the original cast. Then, for greater cinematic dynamism, they shot a performance without an audience, letting the cameras rock out in their own freewheeling dance. The invigorating result, zestily edited by Lee’s own inside iron man, Barry Brown, is in every way a knockout.
But I can hear you asking, “What the hell is it?” The first person you need to know about is Stew. It’s his life that gives Passing Strange its structure, its rhythm and its beating heart. Born Mark Stewart in Los Angeles, Stew, 48, made his name on guitar and doing vocals in a band called the Negro Problem. After performing in Europe and touring America, Stew teamed up with his then-girlfriend, bass player Heidi Rodewald, to write Passing Strange, a musical in which Stew, as narrator, confronts his younger self, winningly played by Daniel Breaker, as he leaves his churchgoing, comfortably middle-class mother (Eisa Davis, magnificent) in 1970s L.A. to find “the real” in the hash and hedonism of Amsterdam and the radical art politics of Berlin. His street cred in Europe comes from passing as an oppressed black man from the South Central projects. In a hilarious aside, Stew confides, “Ain’t nobody on this stage from the projects.” On stage and screen are a host of mesmerizing, multitasking talents, including Chad Goodridge, Colman Domingo and the electrifying De’Adre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones as the women in this youth’s life.
And permeating everything is that thrilling score in which rock, punk, funk and gospel conduct a revival meeting that blows the roof off. Stew’s voice, which can twist from mellow to shout without missing a nuance, is a distinct pleasure. And the lyrics, whether evoking an Amsterdam where “men dressed up in Gauloise smoke quote Marx right back at you” or the pain of missing life while you’re “working your wound,” shame the usual Broadway treacle. As for Lee, he clearly relates to this material and the questions of political, musical and family identity he himself raised in films as diverse as Malcolm X, Mo’ Better Blues and Crooklyn. You can feel his exhilaration directing Passing Strange. When Stew sings out, “Is it all right?” the answer for anyone seeing this powerhouse onscreen, on cable or later on DVD is easy: “Yeah, it’s all right.” And then some.