Overlong, a photographed play not opened up cinematically; but rich in songs and books.
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed by: Spike Lee
Written By: Spike Lee, Book and Lyrics by Stew with the collaboration of Heidi Rodewald
Cast: De’Adre Aziza, Daniel Breaker, Elsa Davis, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Stew
Screened at: Core Club, NYC, 8/19/09
Opens: August 21,2009
To get the negatives out of the way first…”Passing Strange” is a photographed play, one that Spike Lee has filmed but which is not opened up cinematically. This limitation is acute especially considering that the Broadway play, like it off-Broadway origin, has virtually no set. There are no graphic looks at Black churches, the Amsterdam café scene receives no images—though the bright lights that illuminate the proceedings are impressive. The play received a Tony for Best Book of a Musical and was nominated for several other Tonys, Drama Desk, and other awards groups. As a movie, though, “Passign Strange” is less likely to garner awards. On Broadway, shows typically last for two hours or more. The movie version goes on without Broadway’s typical 20-minute intermission but at 135 minutes is still too long.
To repeat a criticism that one hears endlessly from patrons of Broadway musicals, “There’s nothing in the show that you can hum.” Whether this is a valid gripe is anybody’s guess: they don’t make new musicals the way Rodgers and Hammstein and Lerner and Lowe have done. “Passing Strange has an abundance of mostly r’n’r, twenty-five in all. I would challenge you to remember any of them a day after seeing the movie. Thirdly, some of the characters play multiple persons, a technique not unknown on the legitimate stage though almost nonexistent in cinema. Colman Domingo plays Mr. Franklin, Joop and Mr. Venus; Chad Goodridge takes on the roles of Rev. Jones, Terry, Christophe and Hugo; while Rebecca Naomi Jones serves as Sherry, Renata and Desi.
Yet as in the words of one repeated song, “It’s all right.” It’s all right not so much because of Spike Lee’s direction (credit principally Matthew Libatique, the photographer) but because the ensemble on the stage of the New York’s Belasco Theater perform their roles with perfect timing, synchronizing their speech and their songs with one another as though parts of a Swiss watch. And remember that unlike the movies, stage performers have to memorize huge chunks of words to fill out a two-hour production, especially difficult for characters playing multiple roles; film actors may get along with just a couple of minutes of dialogue at a time.
In one of the two principal roles, Stew performs in the role of singing narrator, a Greek chorus if you will, moving the action forward with each song as he looks upon himself as Youth, a young man played by Daniel Breaker. In this semi-autobiographical tale that opens on Youth as a 14-year-old living in LA during the 1960s with his single mother (Elsa Davis), the young man faces an identity crisis before his time. He does not fit into the kind of world his mother wishes for him. He is not a believer, and what’s more cannot find his identity in a church that’s filled with sacred music. He believes-as did James Baldwin, whom Mr. Breaker resembles—that Europe is where it’s at. Traveling to Amsterdam during the 1970s for sex, drugs and rock-and-roll, he may have found himself at last. As he begins getting close to a girlfriend, he’s off again, this time to Berlin where he fits into a band of anarchists who spout Marxist clap-trap but, during Christmas, all but Youth run home to their parents. Determined to continue living in Europe, Youth ignores the pleas of his now-dying mother to return home.
The songs easily take up half the running time of the production, Stew belting forth lyrics that illustrate his looking back to his earlier days, and Daniel Breaker filling in with his own youthful, idealistic visions. “We Just Had Sex” is arguably the most delightful tune in the bunch, “May Day” the most political. Both Stew and Daniel Breaker are exceptional performers.
Ultimately this is a photographed play that must be greatly admired and respected more than enjoyed; but that’s just one critic’s opinion.
Unrated. 135 minutes. © 2009 by Harvey Karten Member: NY Film Critics Online