Spike Lee spent much of 2001 trying to get a film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Rent off the ground; the project was at Miramax, and Lee--a New York filmmaker with both a personal interest and family history in music (his father was an acclaimed and respected musician and composer)--seemed like a perfect fit. But Lee and Miramax parted company over budgetary concerns, and the film was eventually made by Revolution and Columbia, with Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire) inexplicably in the director's chair. We'll never know exactly what Lee's Rent would have been like--it's one of those things that only exists in the alternative movie universe, with Sam Peckinpah's Superman and Orson Welles' Heart of Darkness--though we can pretty safely guess it would have been superior to Columbus' flaccid take.
However, we can get something of an idea of what a Lee Rent might have looked like from his latest release, a thrilling, energetic performance film of the similarly vibrant Broadway musical Passing Strange. Unfortunately, Strange couldn't match Rent's killer box office; it only ran 165 performances (symptomatic of a Broadway environment where critical kudos are seemingly less important than big stars or recycling of material). Lee was taken by the show, however, so he and his cinematographer, the brilliant Matthew Libatique (Iron Man, The Fountain), took their cameras to the Belasco Theatre to capture the show's final performances in July 2008.
Singer/songwriter "Stew," with the backing of a terrific on-stage rock band (including his collaborator Heidi Rodewald), narrates his story. It begins in South Central Los Angeles in 1976, where the his "Youth" alter ego (Daniel Breaker) decides to shake off his roots (and his loving mother, beautifully played by Eisa Davis) to pursue his dreams of musical stardom. He becomes obsessed with punk rock, and decides to broaden his horizons in Europe. First he visits Amsterdam, where he is intoxicated by the lax attitudes towards drugs and sex (of the latter, he sings: "I love that they're so nonchalant/ About the only thing I want"). In the second act, he ventures to Berlin, where he is drawn into the underground political art scene; he amps up (and fibs about) his background for street cred, but is ultimately drawn to reassess his trajectory and sense of self.
Passing Strange gets considerable mileage out of its inventive, funny book and clever lyrics--early on, for example, Stew sings that he's reached a good place for "a showtune/ an upbeat, gonna-leave-town kind of showtune/ but we don't know how to write that kind of tune..." The use of the older musician and his younger counterpart is ingenious (he comments and interacts with his alter ego), while the staging is inventive and dynamic. And the music is just miraculous--memorable, soulful, wonderful.
Lee's film is nicely shot, well-covered by his clever camera placement and movement; he's an experienced and skilled performance shooter, with a résumé that includes not only the film versions of stage shows like Freak and A Huey P. Newton Story, but live performance pictures such as The Original Kings of Comedy and even Kobe Doin' Work. While he fudges on the live aspect just a touch (it was filmed over three performances, not the single one indicated in the opening crawl, and he also shot it once without an audience present, for freer and closer camera movement), that's in line with his shooting style, which mostly attempts to eliminate the physical (and psychic) distance to the events on-stage. He goes up close and personal, choreographing his camera like another member of the company, frequently ignoring (or barely acknowledging) the raucous, enraptured audience. He only takes one wrong step, by following the performance backstage during intermission for a brief but ill-advised interlude that breaks the spell of the show.
In its broad strokes, Passing Strange is a good old-fashioned coming of age story, the vivid account of one man's journey to the "real"--which turns out, funny enough, to be adulthood. It's a tad episodic, but there's a purity and simplicity to the storytelling that truly casts a spell over the viewer, particularly by the time it arrives at its powerful closing scenes, in which the emotions are raw and the music is fierce, tenacious, and moving. It's the kind of movie that you want to watch all over again, the moment it ends.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is strong, for the most part. The backgrounds do get a little chunky, and so much of the show is played in darkness and shadows that the grays aren't terribly stable. Put the pure black levels are rich and full and saturation is outstanding, and through there is occasional blockiness, the detail work is razor sharp (particularly the beads of sweat pouring from the hard-working cast).
Kudos to the engineers of the marvelous 5.1 mix, which is all you could hope for from a live music performance. Instrumentation and the enthusiastic audience responses are well-dispersed throughout the soundstage, while both dialogue and lyrics are crystal-clear in the center channel. Five stars for this active, vibrant, immersive track.
Bonus features are a little scant, but what we get is quality. Though the audio is a little dodgy on the Spike-conducted "Stew and Heidi Interview" (7:21), it's a genuinely interesting and inspiring sit-down. "Last Show Cast Backstage" (4:44) is a charming clip of the cast doing funny warm-ups and getting ready for the closing show. "Teaching De'Adre the Bolex" (3:14) is a fun peek behind the scenes, as Spike and his crew show actress De'Adre Aziza how to wield the vintage 16mm camera during the show. In "Heidi Gives a Tour" (2:54), musician and composer Heidi Rodewald takes the camera backstage (and under-stage), introducing the crew and sharing some trivia. "Last Make-Up Session" (3:16) gives us the chance to eavesdrop on the cast getting made up and chatting with the crew and each other. Finally, the "Theatrical Promo" (2:32) seriously undersells the power of the product. Overall, the extras are decent, but it sure would've been swell to get a commentary from Lee and/or Stew, or a more comprehensive featurette about exactly how Lee and his crew captured the performance.
As the years pass, the movie musical becomes a tougher mountain for filmmakers to climb, though directors like Rob Marshall and Baz Luhrman have tried admirably to conquer it (with varying results). But no matter how stylized or well-mounted a movie musical is these days, it's just plain tough to sell audiences on characters bursting into song and dance. With Passing Strange, which is easily the best movie musical I've seen in the last decade, Spike Lee may have found the best approach--to embrace and utilize a musical's stage roots, rather than attempt to cover them up. The result, at least in this case, is an entertaining, invigorating, deeply touching theatrical and cinematic experience.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their two cats in New York and holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.