Movie Review - Passing Strange - Wondrous 'Strange': Spike Lee Makes A Musical The alt-rock musical Passing Strange earned seven Tony nominations but lasted a mere six months on Broadway. Critic Bob Mondello says it deserved a longer run — at least on the evidence of Spike Lee's kinetic film remake.



Wondrous 'Strange': Spike Lee Makes A Musical

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GUY RAZ, host:

Broadway musicals have an unlikely champion: Spike Lee. The filmmaker was so taken with a show called "Passing Strange" and its star, a singer-songwriter named Stew, that he turned it into a movie. Our critic, Bob Mondello, suspects audiences will be glad he did.

BOB MONDELLO: Stew is a large African American man � red shirt, black suit, appealing voice. He's the author, the songwriter and the subject of "Passing Strange..."

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Unidentified Man: Cue music.

MONDELLO: ...also the onstage narrator.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Mr. STEW (Actor): Sunday morning, South Central L.A., 1976. Mother stands in doorway. Youth is sleeping.

MONDELLO: The characters he's describing materialize on stage near him: a young man also in a red shirt because Stew's tale is largely autobiographical and a mom who almost immediately gets on your nerves.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Ms. EISA DAVIS (Actor): (As Mother) Now jump out of that bed and come a-churchin' with me.

Mr. STEW: She drops the negro dialect and speaks in her natural voice.

Ms. DAVIS: (As Mother) It's such a beautiful Sunday morning.

MONDELLO: With that shift in tone, Stew lets you know that he'll be approaching this coming-of-age story with a twist or two. The middle-class, Los Angeles teenager will grow up to be a lot like the adult singer-songwriter who's telling his story, but that doesn't protect him from a certain amount of mockery, after he leaves a church choir, for instance, to form a punk band.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Mr. STEW: (Singing) I'm at war with negro mores, I don't always get our norms. My mother's (unintelligible)...

MONDELLO: Our hero's path to adulthood takes him on a Candide-like journey to Amsterdam, where his middle-class world gets slightly exploded.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) We just had sex, that's right, all three of us.

MONDELLO: And to an art commune in Berlin, where he goes through a little hell and emerges with an epiphany.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Mr. STEW: (Singing) See I'm cursed (unintelligible) the crowd laughs too soon, and all I have is my (unintelligible).

MONDELLO: You'll note that "Passing Strange" finds a musical style to suit each mood swing. It also has an impressive array of staging tricks, to which Spike Lee adds considerable pop and sizzle on screen. The director filmed two performances on Broadway, then shot the show again without an audience present to capture close-ups and off-beat camera angles. The cast is knocking itself out, and the strikingly edited result is theater magnified, amplified, brought to a kind of life that doesn't usually happen for a theater on screen.

I should admit right here that I'm a theater nut, so this particularly appeals to me. And I should also note that I had an opportunity to see the show live, and I passed on it. Boy, was I wrong. And boy, am I glad that "Passing Strange" has passed my way again. I'm Bob Mondello.

(Soundbite of film, "Passing Strange")

Mr. STEW: (Singing) Who lends the club that speakeasy air? The black one, the black one. Who dances like a God and has Wunderbar hair? Der Schwarze. Now he's the life of every soir�e. He'll give the bum's rush to your ennui. Turn off these lights because I barely can see the black one.

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