Film Review: Passing Strange

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Sundance Film Festival
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PARK CITY -- Deftly capturing the exuberance of singer-songwriter Stew's popular Broadway musical "Passing Strange," Spike Lee's new film elatedly affirms the show's inspiring theme of creative discovery. Ideal for cable broadcast, it also deserves to find a wider theatrical audience that will resonate with the film's stirring music and fine performances.

Workshopped by Stew at the 2004 Sundance Theater Lab, "Passing Strange" eventually went on to Broadway in early 2008 before receiving a Tony and two Obie Awards. As the run was ending in July, Lee collaborated with Stew and the show's cast to film the two final performances, combining the footage with a couple of run-throughs shot without an audience.

"Passing Strange" follows the artistic development of a young black man -- simply called Youth (Daniel Breaker) -- yearning to break free from conventional South Central Los Angeles in the 1970s. Raised by his middle-class, churchgoing mother (Eisa Davis), Youth longs for something other than his creatively sterile Southern California surroundings. Inspired by the local church's choirmaster (Colman Domingo) to seek inspiration overseas, Youth leaves home for Amsterdam to further develop his musicianship.

There, his eyes are opened by the city's liberal sex and drug culture, but Youth eventually feels the need for deeper exploration and moves on to Berlin, where he joins a radical arts commune. Along the way, there are lovers, epiphanies and new experiences that broaden his horizons, though Youth often finds both his music and his life mired in the realities and conflicts of his unremarkable upbringing.

Stew's semi-autobiographical narrative skirts the pitfalls of conventional coming-of-age material by harnessing the boisterous energy of the endlessly inventive musical numbers, co-created with Heidi Rodewald, bassist for the show's band. Drawing on rock, gospel, soul and blues, the songs comment on the frequently amusing storyline while also advancing it, nicely shading Stew's onstage narration.

In directing the film, Lee allows the show's inherent vitality to carry the doc, relying on Stew's charismatic stage presence, the cast's absorbing performances and the production's effective combination of minimal staging and impressive lighting design to convey the musical's energetic celebration of artistic discovery.

Capitalizing on a dynamic multicamera setup incorporating frequent dolly and crane shots, Lee and cinematographer Matthew Libatique capture a wide variety of angles, enabling editor Barry Brown to skillfully cut among them.

With the confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Barack Obama's inauguration and the upcoming Black History Month, "Passing Strange" marks a winning tribute to the diversity of the black musical experience.

Production company: 40 Acres & a Mule Filmworks
Sales: Endeavor Independent
Cast: Stew, Daniel Breaker, Eisa Davis, Rebecca Naomi Jones, De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge
Director: Spike Lee
Screenwriter: Stew 
Producers: Spike Lee, Steve Klein
Executive producers: Ken Greif, Larry Horn, Steve Klein, Will Kohane
Director of photography: Matthew Libatique
Music: Stew, Heidi Rodewald
Editor: Barry Brown

No rating, 135 minutes