In “Passing Strange,” Spike Lee presents a filmed version of the acclaimed off-Broadway musical, and I’m very grateful that he does. This isn’t a film adaptation of a musical, like “Sweeney Todd” or “Rent,” this is the theater piece itself, filmed, and expertly edited. The difference between watching this and watching “Passing Strange” live is that here, you get multiple views, cuts, closeups and pan shots. Since I grew up on theater and nothing — and I mean nothing — theatrical comes to the mountain town where I live, “Passing Strange” feels like a wonderful and unusual gift. Perhaps it will for you, too.
This is the story of a young African American man coming of age in Europe after growing up in Los Angeles. It is autobiographical and narrated by its author, Mark Stewart, aka Stew. Daniel Breaker plays the Youth, who discovers the power of music in church (as well as the allure of drugs from his youth pastor) and then travels to Europe to discover “the real.” Like many Broadway musicals before it, “Passing Strange” is able to talk about ideas like “the real” without triggering the gag reflex because, well, it is a musical after all. If you’re going to suddenly burst into song, it might as well be about Love or Truth or Beauty or some such idea. The sung lines of “Passing Strange” would be unbearable if spoken, but when sung, they are moving, romantic, and heartrending.
The Youth travels from Amsterdam, where everything is free and a little too easy, to Berlin, where he is told that everything he thinks and feels is a lie, and must traffic on his race– and a made-up ghetto childhood – to earn friends and influence. In the midst of it all is a girlfriend who challenges him to stay in one place and deal with his fears and insecurities– he keeps running away “just when it was starting to feel real”– and his poor exasperated mother, wondering when he’s coming home.
Narrating his own story gives Stew a certain kind of leave: he is able to be both mean and wise, sad and nostalgic, in that way all of us, at a certain age can look back and laugh while saying, “what a stupid kid I was.” Because we know it is his own story, the line between reality and acting is easy to blur; the tears he sheds and regret he shows onstage might well be real, for all we know. Watching “Passing Strange” is an exhilarating powerful experience; it feels honest, honestly crafted, true and beautiful. It feels real.