Friday, May 17, 2013

Movies You May Have Missed - "Passing Strange" 2010

The history of Passing Strange is one of those rare, life-affirming theatrical blends of artistry, humor, and rock music rising to the top, winning awards (including an Obie), then closing its run rather early before fading from consciousness to live as a cult phenomenon. But wait—Spike Lee happened to see the musical and rightly so, decided it was a keeper. He also filmed it as it was—a play, and so captured its outstanding cast and energy. Spike Lee knew just what to do, and now we have this film to enjoy forever. Thank you, Spike Lee.

Passing Strange was workshopped twice at the Sundance Institute by Stew, a first-time playwright and leader of the rock band Stew & the Negro Problem. It was first performed in Berkeley (kicking myself for missing it), and then, eventually on Broadway. No one is more baffled by this trajectory than Stew. When asked by Lee in one of the film's DVD extras, what was the most surprising aspect of the process, Stew points to the stage and replies, "That we're here." He and collaborator/bass player Heidi Rodewald and director/collaborator Annie Dorsen are pioneers in a field that doesn't exactly overflow with African-American artist coming-of-age stories. The whole thing is improbable, and yet, here it is.

And it is such a joy. Stew narrates this musical biography about a young man's search for his artistic self while emigrating to Europe. This is mined for every comic moment imaginable, including the cringe-inducing teenage horror of growing up in Los Angeles among the middle-class and church-going when you're a Buddhist rock musician at heart; the shock and awe that is 80s-era Amsterdam cafe life; and the dark, noise-infused world of a Berlin performance-art co-op. Yes, all these situations are comic goldmines and all are infused with spirit and expert timing by the wry Stew and his six multiple-role playing cast members.

Stew as narrator and storyteller
Heidi Rodewald, musical collaborator, cool bass player, lady in white
Like many who have watched a lot of PBS over the years, I am not a fan of filmed plays. I approached Passing Strange, the movie, with trepidation. But it's Spike Lee directing, so don't worry. He's a film veteran and he knows we probably feel this way going in. With just a few wide shots, he establishes the lovely Belasco Theatre, the live-band situation, and the cast. Then he uses his 14 cameras (14!) to zero in on the dramatic action. He even had his DP instruct actress De'Adre Aziza, playing a ridiculous avant-garde filmmaker, to shoot with her onstage Bolex prop camera as part of a performance-art piece monologue. So you get some retro-looking grainy 16mm cut in with the sharp digital footage.

On second viewing, I actually started craving more wide shots, so I could see the full choreography, but I trust that Lee had his reasons, most likely technical and aesthetic, for his multitudes of two- and three-shots and close-ups. Then, putting his ego on a shelf, he edited by getting out of the way and letting the play do its thing. This play got the film director it deserves.

One of the few, well-timed overhead shots that take Passing Strange beyond just being a "filmed play"
Daniel Breaker as the Youth, having a revelation ("Music is the Freight Train in which God Travels") in church with Mother (Eisa Davis)
Stew looks back at his younger self, played by Daniel Breaker, soaking up life, as he struggles to "pass" among South-central Los Angeles conformity. Expected to go to church with his single Mom (Eisa Davis), and eventually meet a nice girl and settle down, Youth can't help but rebel. Franklin Jones (exquisitely played by Colman Domingo), choir-master and closeted gay son of the Reverend, prompts our callow hero to find his true self in Europe, like Josephine Baker and "Jimmy" Baldwin. This scene, set in a VW Bug to the tune, "Arlington Hill," about getting high and briefly connecting with people who end up changing your life, is like a master class in dramatic form. And Colman Domingo as a closeted choir-master, is so funny and tragic within moments. Just see it for his body language alone.
Colman Domingo as Franklin (foreground), being masterful
This staid California world is set in deft strokes, with straight-back chairs, and the cast playing multiple roles. This is my favorite kind of theater because it reminds me of childhood play. It takes so much imagination to create an entire existence on a stage, and to make us believe in that world. Stew's story has many universal themes, and he pokes at them throughout, as only the middle-aged humorist can do when looking back on youth.

The cast is full of multiple surprise talents. There's Chad Goodridge, playing a middle-aged reverend, praising God one moment, then switching to a disgruntled suburban teen, having a bad acid trip. Then he'll suddenly make some fluid movement and you realize he's a professional dancer too. Everyone sings beautifully. Everyone moves in fluid, vibrant ways. Everyone has exquisite comic timing. It's quite a cast, I tell you.

The Youth forms his first punk rock band, and I completely relate—I did that too. I had to get my anger out and music was the way for me. But I didn't have the added difficulty of racism to contend with. This play doesn't tell you what to think about racism, yet it's infused with what life is about when everything's subject to racism. It's cosmic goofiness by painful way of the worldly wise. It's so rich, and so funny too.

Rebecca Naomi Jones, teen bass player in The Scariotypes, has the best punk-rock eyes
Youth's conflicted relationship with Mother sends him fleeing to Amsterdam, and sets a pattern of flight, in search of the "real." But as anyone who was once 19 knows, that road has many twists and turns.

Welcome to Amsterdam!

Naturists! Philosophy professors! Sex workers!

Abstract artists! The Dutch!

Relationships blossom and burn out. People get left behind. Art will not be denied, but there is fallout and weirdness. Especially upon arrival in West Berlin.

Berlin is intense

An ongoing musical riot against "the system"—just another house full of performance artists
Stew is tough on his Youth, who is trying on a persona in order to find his true artistic self. But that's how it goes for young artists. They're natural bumblers, attempting to find their voice. For musicians, music is the voice. And everything else can be a struggle.

As in many immigration stories, the heart of the matter lies in what and who got left behind. You'll laugh with Passing Strange, but you'll be moved. The music, lilting and melodic, uplifting and soulful, has elements of gospel, blues, jazz, punk, and rock. The band plays on lifts that dip them half-way below the stage, so they're always present. The vibrancy of a rock show is right there the entire time. Show tunes are attempted and quickly dropped with a shrug, swapped for gospel-soul-rock sing-alongs. You are being winked at and uplifted at the same time. I'm just so glad this is a movie.

Farewell, Youth

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