Summary: Produced and directed by Spike Lee, Passing Strange is a film version of the rock and roll Broadway show that was a massive success in 2008. It’s the story of a young Black man from Los Angeles, California, grappling with issues of race, sexuality, identity and family.
Review: Passing Strange was all the rage in New York City: critically-acclaimed, selling out shows and proving once again there is an audience for African Americans on Broadway. From February 28, 2008 to July 20, 2008, the show wowed audiences with 165 performances. Leave it to Spike Lee to spot brilliance and film the show’s final three nights at Belasco Theatre.
Clocking in at 135 minutes on film, Passing Strange would seem difficult to capture for the big screen. The musical includes a lot: an onstage band, narrator, an additional cast of six and audience interaction. This is no easy journey to bring to the movies. One would think you would need to experience Passing in person; nonetheless, Spike Lee manages to flawlessly grab the show’s essence, right to its core. With intricate camera angles, you see the actors up close — their sweat beads, facial expressions and one-on-one dialogue, which makes it seem as if you are in the front row. Passing Strange is a “Spike Lee Joint,” but the Brooklyn native took a step back and let the story unfold. Spike Lee was clearly secondary, which shuts down many of his critics who complain he is self-indulgent.
If I could write a whole review about the cast I would. This group of actors seemed to truly enjoy themselves and each other on stage. They had chemistry that is rarely seen even from big-budget Hollywood films with an A-list cast. The majority of the cast played a variety of characters, bouncing from various accents (Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Berlin), ethnicities and personalities. A clear stand-out, Colman Domingo effortlessly portrayed a gay closeted young preacher, naked Amsterdam hippie and an artsy revolutionary.
The lead, Daniel Breaker, carried the production with his innocence, high-energy and undeniable pizzazz. His voice was outstanding, transitioning from a plethora of vocal styles like gospel, punk rock, blues, and jazz.
The true star of Passing Strange is the narrator and the man who wrote the lyrics and book, simply named, Stew. The story is obviously his vision and one can only assume, at least partly, autobiographical.
Passing Strange only adds to Spike Lee’s visionary resume and his eye for fresh talent. On another note, while the premise is of a young African-American man, the film rises above race and focuses on the innocence of youth and the various passages we go through to learn.
Passing Strange opens in New York City today.