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  • PassingStrangeMovie-325.jpgOfficial screen versions of Broadway shows generally fall into one of three distinct categories. In order of decreasing rarity: the honest-to-goodness adaptation (transform a play into a film, such as with last year's semi-acclaimed Doubt); the documentary (make a film about making a play, as in the case of Every Little Step); and the preservation (actually film a play, onstage and with an audience, the kind of thing you might see on Live From Lincoln Center or, even more infrequently, for sale like Victor/Victoria).

    What you never see, however, is all three occurring simultaneously within the same work. That Spike Lee's new film of Passing Strange, a record of the enthusiastic 165th—and final—Broadway performance of the Stew–Heidi Rodewald musical on July 20, 2008, tries just that explains why it's both an intoxicating record of the show and yet considerably less than the sum of its parts.

    Lee, who's best known for directing bracingly gritty urban exposés like Do the Right the Thing, Malcolm X, and 25th Hour, would seem to be ideal for guiding this show to the screen. Following a young Los Angeles man who searches for personal and musical fulfillment in Amsterdam and Berlin before discovering his truest voice was always at home, Passing Strange spends almost all its time meditating on the nature of racial identity, personal identification, and the yawning chasms that so frequently exist between the two. The Youth (played by the scintillating Daniel Breaker, now in Shrek on Broadway) is desperate to escape accusations that he's either not black enough or is passing for black much the way he's passing for sensitive or profound. One would think Lee would find all sorts of magic in probing and presenting how the Youth transforms into the cynically realistic Narrator (Stew), even uncovering depths on film that were harder to find onstage.

    To an extent that's true, although it's for reasons more related to the medium than the mediator. The stage show, for its many virtues of production, was just short of ear-splittingly loud, which often made it difficult to absorb the deeper nuances of the lines and lyrics. The film can't help but be quieter and more personal, resulting in crisper and clearer dialogue and lyrics that emphasize the work's oral elements without instilling aural pain.

    There is a tradeoff, however, and a big one: Stripped of his ability to conceive the work from the deck up, Lee evinces far too much difficulty working within the strictures of the stage artists' visions. You lose the epic panoramas of emotional exclusion that the show's director, Annie Dorsen, constructed on the smallish stage of the Belasco Theatre. By extension, dozens of barely perceptible visual jokes (often in the minute ways the cast interacts with the onstage band and with each other) and the few major scenic effects (such as the revelation of David Korins and Kevin Adams's stunning light wall backdrop) are either lost altogether or made into afterthoughts. Karole Armitage's choreography looks muddy and flustered, not at all like the bouts of orgiastic self-expression they embodied onstage. And because theatre staging has its own requirements and challenges, Lee must use far too many off-angle and jaggedly edited shots just to get all the necessary action and actors in the frame in the first place. You lose all sense of the show's brutally stark style and the pulsating energy, unmatched in any recent musical in my memory, that all these individual elements helped kindle. The documentary aspects, most visible in the few minutes of backstage intermission badinage, are not a sufficient substitute.

    But if Lee's film doesn't capture the musical's raw, visceral appeal, it nonetheless makes a sterling case for the material itself. Passing Strange is not a clunkily conventional attempt to retrofit the "clichéd" Broadway musical with new-sound music, à la Spring Awakening (which opened about a year earlier). Stew, who worked on everything, and Rodewald, who helped with the music and plays and sings in the band, have created a dazzlingly complex work that fuses genres ranging from avant-garde cinema to burlesque minstrelsy to performance art to even show-tune standards into a biographical stream-of-consciousness concert. What starts as a battle between the disparate forces of the Narrator, pronouncing his life from a center-stage podium, and the reactionary Youth fighting his way through the relatively realistic domestic drama of his life, eventually shows how the two united into a single creative and psychological being.

    It was never intended to be, and never could be, a traditionally told tale, and maintain the heartbreaking ironies of how Stew interacts with the Mother (Eisa Davis) he abandoned early on, or how the other women in his life (De'Adre Aziza and Rebecca Naomi Jones) continue to exist, long after having dissolved into his past, dancing themselves sick in the bass-heavy song cycle of his life. The dramatic and the diegetic blend so seamlessly that it's impossible to discern whether the full-cast nuclear first-act number "Keys," representing the Youth's romantic and sexual awakening, takes place in the past, present, or in both simultaneously. Like Cabaret and Chicago, Passing Strange draws its content from its concept, it doesn't just blithely hold it up and claim artistic street cred, as so many quote-unquote daring musicals today so frequently do.

    Lee's film beautifully preserves all the outstanding performances. Breaker made a momentous musical debut here, smoothly transitioning from callow youngster to pained underdeveloped adult into Stew himself—watch how his hand gestures and vocal cadences so gradually that they require literally the movie's entire running time (about two hours and fifteen minutes) to complete. Davis is remarkable as well, fierce and funny in parodying both the stereotypical ghetto mom and a French art-house waif, but shattering as the Mother fighting as much against herself as her son, wrenching out an unvoiceable goodbye with a cascade of tears. Aziza and Jones are scorching as the Youth's round-robin romances, though Aziza's jazzier parts (a secretly slutty choir girl, an inventive post-modern pornographer) give her more latitude and the actress's more natural delivery style translates better to film than Jones's bulging-eyed intensity (which made her dynamic onstage). Colman Domingo and Chad Goodridge are a hoot as the male chorus; Domingo, especially, eats up the screen as both a pastor's pot-smoking son and a post-modern German cabaret artist whose act looks far weirder and scarier-funnier on film than it did in the theater.

    Stew has a bit more trouble. Though a consummate concert artist whose magnetically underplayed style anchored the show onstage, he more than anyone else is a victim of Lee's overactive closeups. Lee cuts to him so often, and at such close range, you can get very little sense of the scope of the show occurring just beyond the boundaries of his face.

    What Lee apparently misunderstood is that though the show tells Stew's story, the Narrator is the vehicle, not the subject. Although those who saw the show will undoubtedly be able to "see around" this to recognize this film as the vital document it is of a groundbreaking musical, those who missed it live may have trouble understanding exactly what the fuss was about. The Youth comes to believe that "Life is a mistake that only art can correct," but without a broader view of the life in which they're all contained, Lee's art does Passing Strange more wrong than right.

    Photos by David Lee. From top to bottom: Stew; Daniel Breaker; the company of Passing Strange.

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