Spike Lee turns picaresque Broadway musical into a lively movie document
His epiphany comes in a blue VW, smoking weed with his church choir director. The unnamed young man (Daniel Breaker) is growing up middle-class and alienated, and the fact that he’s black and lives in 1970s South Central Los Angeles only makes the alienation feel worse. Stoned, he listens to Mr. Franklin (Colman Domingo), an older, closeted minister’s son, spiel out a baked litany of black Euro-bohemian namedropping—from Giovanni’s Room to Josephine Baker—that’s as addled as it is erudite. Whoever and whatever Mr. Franklin’s going on about, that’s what he wants to be a part of, not the church choir. And so begins the continent-hopping journey of musical self-discovery laid out in Passing Strange, the 2008 Broadway hit as captured for the screen by Spike Lee.
Much of this musical self-discovery is related by Stew, a roundish light-skinned African-American man in a dark suit, sneakers, and glasses who is always onstage, speaking, singing, or hammering on an electric guitar. The story Stew (just the one name) narrates is his own, at least in outline, and he co-wrote the book and music with collaborator/onstage-pit-band member Heidi Rodewald. A man retelling his own musical journey of self-discovery in Broadway show form isn’t necessarily the ideal capsule description for good cinema, but the show’s shrewd intelligence and the amplified-rock whomp that Stew and company bring to Passing Strange gave Lee plenty to work with when he filmed the show’s final Broadway performances in July 2008.
As Mr. Franklin puts it, the would-be bohemian youth is just “passing for black folks” and thus goes searching for what the book calls “The Real,” the authentic, artistic life he believes he’s supposed to be living, which he’s certain has nothing to do with his faithful mother (Eisa Davis) or workaday black South Central. Passing Strange takes ample time to satirize said workaday world (e.g., the appearances-conscious “Christian catwalk” of the black church), but it also makes clear that the youth’s dreams are as callow as they are intense; Breaker gives good whine. The young man discovers punk rock and drugs, and once he up and moves to Amsterdam, and later Berlin, he discovers sex and outrage. He feels free in libertine Europe, but his identity crisis only deepens. His Berlin squatmates love him, as one puts it, “like an anthropologist loves a tribe”—cue Weill-ian second-act number “The Black One”—and he starts to play up and take advantage of “ghetto warrior” bona fides he doesn’t actually possess. As he chases “The Real,” it’s not at all hard to spot that he’s forever running from what’s real, ultimately, as well. And this being a Broadway show, albeit an unusual one, there are a couple of big emotional set pieces, a denouement, and a lesson to be learned.
Passing Strange doesn’t hold back on the emotion-milking moments or the big everybody-belt-it-now numbers—it is a musical—but the show’s wiliness helps it earn them. The broadness of some of its stereotypes might verge on gospel-play territory if it weren’t for Stew periodically defusing their stockness in ways both arch (as when the narrator notes the youth’s mother angrily “dropping the Negro dialect” to yell at him) and knowing (the youth’s princess-y teenage lust object, played by De’Adre Aziza, informs him he needs to “blacken up,” though “not so much that you become unhireable or anything”). Once the young man makes it across the pond, the stereotypes threaten to swing the other way as the free lovers of Amsterdam and the anarchist/artists of Berlin mince and strut and act provocatively until, in each city, a real human connection cuts through the accents and get-ups donned by the small cast, most of whom play multiple roles. Best of all, the man telling the story seems to understand that the story has to be a good one, a flashy one, and a relatable one, too. You don’t have to have slummed among other ethnicities in foreign lands to appreciate it when Stew ponders the sobering reality of an “entire adult life based on a decision made by a teenager.”
Breaker handles his central role as that teenager/rising-adult well enough, although Domingo, Davis, and, especially, Rebecca Naomi Jones, dominate the spartan stage and steal moment after moment from him. They can’t dominate the music, though; it comes through rock-band loud and bears the simple pop punch of the seasoned club-touring singer/songwriter Stew is, instead of the dumbed-down frippery that Broadway composers sometimes sub for rock music. Lee makes the most of the live-onstage interaction of cast and band, too, upping the delirious all-stops-out heights the score occasionally reaches. If Passing Strange’s self-discoveries occasionally feel too facile, its characters too thin, and its dialogue too stagey, the enormous energy and cinematic seamless of Lee’s rendering help it get over and rediscover itself time after time.