Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Passing Strange

“He Never Understood The Purpose Of Love Without Understanding.”

“Do You Now?”

-Passing Strange-

Passing Strange shreds the line between concert film and musical, and is a welcome reminder after the bloated and misguided Miracle At St. Anna (One of those sad cases where a film is very close to a directors heart, and has pounds of potential, and just isn’t any good at all), of what a vital director Spike Lee can be.

Most filmed Broadway shows lose what an electrifying experience such a show can be, because without the live energy behind it, most shows are just samey sounding songs with sing talking the plot at you. By shooting the performance live but cinematically Lee is able to capture the spontaneous energy of the show while making it look amazing.

I can’t overestimate what a unique experience Passing Strange is. It’d be damn near impossible to film in conventional cinematic form (Hell its going to be damn near impossible to REVIVE). What Lee pulls off is nothing short of miraculous. Calling it Electrifying is like calling a shock to the testicles electrifying it just doesn’t cover it.

Passing Strange is one of those rare works that manages to speak frankly about race without ever once coming off as didactic or heavy handed. It manages to be at once deeply personal and bracingly singular. A combination of huge musical and personal exorcism so raw that its damn near performance art. A striking tribute to art and a frank assessment of its limitations.

The story follows the journey of Stew, narrated by his older and somewhat wiser self, from his comfortable middle class existence in Los Angeles, to his search for “the real” across Europe, and then finally back home when a dose of harsh reality brings the awakening he’s searched for his entire life. Albeit at an extraordinarily heavy price.

Passing Strange features a small cast fielding multiple roles, with smooth grace, it’s the sort of stage production that looks easy with its minimalist structure and cast but is really filled with the stuff that’s the trickiest to pull off. Still the cast is more then able, nimbly skipping through the play’s tonal gearshifts, the play often goes from laugh out loud funny to tragic in the space of a line, without missing a beat.

I’m worried about lapsing into Hyperbole with this review but somehow I don’t think I’m going to. Film is a medium for loners. As much as we love the experience of watching a movie with a crowd of strangers its not truly communal. Just a bunch of people alone together. Theater is different. It is a communal experience. Passing Strange somehow captures that feeling onto celluloid. The film is so alive that it damn near seems sentient.

Passing Strange is the sort of experience you want to share. It’s the sort of movie you just shove in peoples hands, you want to transmit the feeling like a virus, to just about anyone including you reading this right now.

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