It’s easy to see why Spike Lee was drawn to Stew, the one-named musician and mastermind behind the Broadway production “Passing Strange.”
Like Lee, the artist formerly known as Mark Stewart possesses a powerful and singular voice, one he uses to express vividly his own unique experience of growing up as a black man in America. And Lee has always shown a strong affinity with music in his films, as evidenced by his longtime collaboration with composer and jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard.
In bringing Stew’s show to the screen as “Passing Strange The Movie,” Lee took the wise and uncharacteristic step of staying out of the way — of letting the songs and the story play out without inserting his own trademark aesthetics into them. (“Passing Strange” won the Tony last year for best book of a musical and earned six other nominations. The movie version will play theatrically in New York starting Friday, then will be available nationwide through video-on-demand starting Aug. 26.)
Lee shot two performances at New York’s Belasco Theatre before the show’s close — including the emotional finale — then shot it again without an audience to capture close-ups, include dolly shots. The result is so crisp and intimate, it makes you feel as if you’re right on the minimalist stage with Stew (who also narrates), the rest of his formidable cast and the band. Similar to Jonathan Demme’s concert film “Neil Young: Heart of Gold,” the cameras stay focused almost entirely on the performers, except for a few times you see the packed and rousing house in the background.
Matthew Libatique, the cinematographer behind several of Lee’s recent films including “Inside Man,” lets you see every facial expression and bead of sweat — and even a few tears. The film is also edited (by another frequent Lee collaborator, Barry Brown) with a natural energy and fluidity, which enhances the vibrancy of the material.
The semi-autobiographical “Passing Strange” tells the story of a black Los Angeles teenager, known as Youth (Daniel Breaker), who struggles to find his artistic identity in the 1970s. Among the forces that shape him are his churchgoing mother (Eisa Davis) and the bohemian misfits he meets in Amsterdam and Berlin (De’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones in multiple roles).
The coming-of age tale may sound familiar and the self-serious debates about creativity can grow repetitive. But the powerful and catchy rock, blues and gospel songs (co-written by singer and bassist Heidi Rodewald), along with Stew’s humorously pointed observations about race, make “Passing Strange” compelling and often moving.
Besides trying to figure out who he is, Youth also has a complicated relationship with his blackness. He was raised middle class, safely surrounded by love, but when he travels to Europe and immerses himself in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, he starts to think he doesn’t have enough of a tortured past from which to create true art, so he affects a ghetto persona.
“I am bleeding sunshine,” he half sings, half recites. “I am emptying my veins.”
As Stew points out, no one on this stage knows what it’s like to hustle on the mean streets of South Central — one of many times he talks directly to his characters or to the audience.
His words — both spoken and sung, on stage and on screen — ring out loud and clear.