Passing Strange (2009)
When I read Roger Ebert's review
where he calls Passing Strange one of the best musicals he's seen, I couldn't grasp from his description if this was a stage production or a concert film, whether it was filmed for Spike Lee's cameras or if this was taken from live performances and captured by Lee to be preserved. I just knew from Ebert's enthusiasm that I wanted to find out someday.
Passing Strange is a Broadway Musical. (It won a Tony for Best Book of a Musical in a year when Lin-Manuel Miranda won most other Musical categories with In The Heights.) It's unconventionally meta, the semi-autobiographical story of the rock musician Stew, who wrote the book and lyrics and is onstage throughout as the Narrator. Also on stage are three other musicians who perform the songs with Stew and the cast and sometimes interact with them. Stew also takes more of a part in the drama until ultimately he is sharing the performance with the actor playing his younger self. This is all very, very cool as the show never steps wrong when it comes to knowing when and how to lean on the storytelling to enhance the story.
When the show goes into Intermission, Lee goes with it, including some brief backstage footage. It never breaks the magic of the narrative but gives a greater appreciation of the hard work of the cast. With all the mystery about how Hollywood will eventually film Hamilton - and I'm sure it will be done with a huge budget for period detail - Lee shows that the best approach may be to simply film the show in it's stripped down form. While the sets are minimal instead of lavish, Lee captures the beauty of the theatrical lighting and composes his shots cinematically in high definition.
I wish I was a bigger fan of the music. I recognize it as pretty great music, but it often lacks the hook that would make this a hidden Hamilton. (It's not that all musicals need to be Hamilton quality, it's that this one mostly compares favorably to that colossal, transformative work of art.) It took me a few songs to get into the story, but I like the way Stew contrasts the hedonism of Amsterdam in Act 1, where a woman quickly gives him her "Keys" and the entire cast celebrate different combinations of love with "We Just Had Sex", to the revolutionary cultural upheaval of Germany, encapsulated by the show stopper "What's Inside is Just a Lie", which blends Punk, Industrial and Kraftwork into a confrontational piece of performance art.
Ebert's last line says it best, "This is not a traditional feature, but it's one of Spike Lee's best films." You feel the artist guiding the art and not just filming it. One of the best things I've watched all year.Rating: * * * - Very Good