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|
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)|
|Colman Domingo as Franklin (foreground), being masterful|
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|
|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|
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.