Spike Lee: Passing Strange (2009) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Spike Lee: Passing Strange (2009)

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A young man journeys forward from the small church where he first tried pot in the youth group, to drug-fueled adventures in Europe.  All the while he hopes he can capture some bit of "the real," and become satisfied with his life.  Spike Lee directs Passing Strange written as a stage musical by Stew with musical contributions by Heidi Rodewald.

What's inside is just a liePassing Strange is the movie Spike Lee's been building his whole artistic career toward.  That's a brash statement, especially since we're talking about a legacy which includes Do the Right Thing, Jungle Fever, Crooklyn, A Huey P. Newton Story, and When the Levees Broke.  But there's a crackle of energy and delight from the first frame on in Passing Strange which results from a spectacular alchemy which arose from Spike's collaboration with Stew.

Spike's love of musicals is well documented and he's incorporated many of their tropes from the delightful color sequence in She's Gotta Have It to the parades of When the Levees Broke.  But Passing Strange allowed Spike the rare opportunity to just direct since the show was well into production and had been mostly perfected by the time Spike saw the show and approached Stew with making Passing Strange into a film.  What resulted is unlike anything else we've seen from Spike, and could be considered a documentary as much as it is a concert film, as it documents the strong relationship between the crowd, Stew, and the songs.

To tip my hand early, I love everything about Passing Strange.  The first time I saw it I immediately flipped the DVD back to the first chapter and watched it again.  Then I watched it again.  And again.  I've, to date, refused to buy Passing Strange because I love renting it.  The action helps make each act of rewatching Passing Strange feel like an event, like I'm buying another ticket for a show I never want to be over.  One day I finally realized the old cliché about a lot of musical theater folks having an almost unhealthy love of Rent is how I feel about Passing Strange.  The songs are top-down perfect, and what I thought were middling numbers like "We Just Had Sex" took on new life when I realized they were still about Youth ultimately meaningless quest to forge an identity against other people.  But since Spike is free to do what he does best he uses the camera in a way which restages the relationship between Stew and the crowd into something almost confrontational, as there are moments he forgets the crowd in his self-disgust and turns solely to the camera.

As a mild confession, I kind of wanted to focus on Spike's films as a project so I would have an excuse to gush about Passing Strange for the site.  So, and I hope you don't break my heart here, how'd you like it?‏

Watching my hope for art become realI really liked it too (I hadn't seen this one before), and the most interesting thing for me is how much more “directed” this one feels than some of the other stage productions Spike's worked on. By that I don't mean that the directing choices are intrusive, but rather that the formal elements are so crucial to the experience here. We noted some of his filming choices in Freak and the construction of the set and projected images in A Huey P. Newton Story, but for those movies the essential elements of the experiences seemed still firmly rooted in the stage show itself—Spike's decisions helped transport that experience to the screen, but didn't always seem to be a crucial part of how that experience was crafted in the first place

Here that's not the case. I'm trying to envision what this show would be like to just to go sit in a theater and watch, and it's hard to imagine. Spike is constantly active with the camera, cutting between many different angles and swooping in and out of scenes. One of my favorite moments is when Youth forms a punk band—immediately after we're told this the camera dives down on a newly harsh-lit set as the kids bang away at drums and guitars. It's funny and jarring, but it also seems like we've genuinely moved to a new space. Visually it's distinct from the scenes that came before, and the way Spike puts a new visual stamp on each new phase of Youth's life has such an effect on how we experience his story that, again, I wonder if it would even be possible to have this same experience as an audience member for the stage show.

Yet the theater setting is still important for the way it draws our attention continually back to the fact that what we're seeing is being constructed before us. Most films want you to forget you're watching a film during the run time—here we need to be reminded, because this mirrors Youth's own process of crafting and shaping his identity. I love how Stew periodically breaks from his typically narrator role to make a side comment to one of the actors or to gesture off-stage, and I like how well the literal act of putting on a stage show functions as a metaphor for the larger identity shifts and discoveries we get throughout.‏

Right when it was starting to feel realNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThe experience of watching Passing Strange as a movie versus a show is something A.O. Scott talked about in his review.  He was one of the few cinema critics who had watched the show when it was on stage, and said that what Spike did with his direction brought new life to the show.  We can see from the many shots how inviting Stew is from the beginning, literally inviting the audience to rock with him all night, but as the show progresses Spike moves the cameras in closer to emphasize the rapidly changing relationships between each character.

When Youth is giving the eulogy at his mother's funeral he appears suddenly in the background as Stew disappears into the foreground.  Youth is lit bright and visible, the spotlight he long wished for suddenly appearing at last, as Stew's frame is barely visible from the ground lights.  On stage, it would be next to impossible to see Stew, but since Spike is able to position the cameras in such a way that Stew can be captured, we get to see Stew disappearing into his grief.

The "constant construction" you mentioned is a play on a theme throughout many of Spike's films.  While the broad stylistic choices of Passing Strange recall School Daze and Freak, the songs and actions of Passing Strange are all about shifting identities in a specifically black American context.  Passing Strange is most like Get on the Bus in this regard, only instead of showing different ideas of masculinity bouncing off one another in a small setting, we get a fabricated reality which is controlled by a man who regrets his actions but nonetheless has fondness for his wandering.  The changes in the stage setting are most notable from the soundtrack (brief aside, "What's Inside Is Just A Lie" is probably my favorite soundtrack shift here) and the costumes as Youth literally tries out other identities.  Spike's direction helps emphasize this more, in the punk rock sequence that you noted, as well as superb shots of a Super 8 camera brought onstage to highlight the transition from the freaked out trip he goes on drugs at home to the warmth of his hashish smoking family in Amsterdam.‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryIt's also interesting that the setting for so much of Passing Strange is in Europe—providing a look at Youth's shifting sense of American identity through contrast and absence. So many of his actions are motivated by the idea that the next place or phase of musical success will somehow get him exactly what he needs—and we get great line about how he can't stay and get to comfortable in Amsterdam or else he'll forget all the things there are to complain about. But the fact that there is no solid, definite endpoint is lost on Youth through much of his traveling, and so he keeps pushing away and running from anything that might lead to any firmer identity shifts.

That idea of running from yourself is common throughout a lot of Spike's films as well, and it's fitting that he gets to solidify each of these shifting identities for the audience through his own visual stamp, while still dealing with material that struggles against allowing any one sense of identity to become to definite for Youth.‏Is it alrightNewer Andrew cutout commentaryThat line, "It's like I can't get comfortable, otherwise I'll forget about all the shit there is to complain about," is just one of many which get a sad laugh out of me every time I've watched Passing Strange.  Stew's lyrics and dialogue get a lot of mileage out of a quick term switch at the end or leaving things dangling just enough.  A highlight of the Amsterdam jaunt is, "You could say I hook therefore I (Aaaaaamsterdam, Aaaaaamsterdam)" then there's the contender for best sentence ever written in the Berlin segment where the filmmaker states she makes postmodern pornography, "Fully clothed men making business deals."

Entertaining as all this is, Stew entertains precisely so he may disarm.  This is done is a self-knowing fashion, like when Stew tells the audience that no one in this play knows what it's like to grow up on the mean streets of L.A.  But toward the end of the play it gets deep, then depressing, then we see the spectacle for the masochistic action it is.  The frequent refrain of running away just when it was "Starting to feel real" hurts most when Youth thinks that he can summon his mother for an audience every night and thinks that his constant rocking will replace the pain he feels for abandoning her.  It's a highlight in a film full of them because it's a knowing blend of everything which makes cinema and theater different experiences as Youth yells at the crowd and band the same way Stew did earlier to both the in-theater crowd and the camera for folks watching at home, only the band responds to Youth's "This is not a passing phase" with "This was just a passing phase."

The way Stew lingers in the background of Youth's "revelations" is something which plays more strongly thanks to Spike's direction.  Returning to the silhouette I spoke of earlier, Spike is able to make Stew's sudden emergence into Youth's spotlight a sad inevitability via cinema instead of a sudden emergence as on stage.  Then there are those final, painful, lines which sum up what Passing Strange is about.

"Wish we could talk about how the means will not prepare you for the ends
How your epiphanies will become fair-weather friends
How death will make you lower your defenses
The only truth of youth is the grown-up consequences
See, song is a balm
But song cannot heal
You believed in it too long
Now I need something more than real
I need something more than real
Someday, the chords of age
Will drown out the life you've been dreaming of
Then you'll be out on your ass
And cursing a lass
Your song is just passing for love
My song was just passing for love
And you will never see her again
And I will never see her again
And we will never see her again"‏

Tiny Kyle CommentaryYeah the way the kind of meta awareness of the show shifts in toward Stew in one of the strongest points, and again something Spike is able to contribute to by effectively holding the shot on a facial expression or exchange, underlining elements that a theater audience would have to catch themselves.

You said at the start that for you Passing Strange is what Spike's been building toward for his whole career up to this point, and I can't necessarily argue that. It's interesting, because if we jump back even a few weeks to what a pinnacle Spike Lee film may look like, I probably wouldn't have envisioned something like this. It also acts as a reminder that some of the most complex and compelling films in this project have been those where he was collaborating. Even the documentaries involve a kind of collaboration you don't need on a standard film set—the subjects are enabling whatever story Spike wants to tell, and it's his job to find out how to bring that story out for an audience. Now we have this film, where again he matched up with another storyteller whose themes he obviously connects with, and it's almost as if shedding some of the weight of conceiving and writing the entire story freed him up to make even better formal choices. Through the early part of his career we talked a lot about the screenplays and the action of the plot—but I think a lot of people forget how good of a technical filmmaker he is as well.‏

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Next week, Kobe Doin' Work.Spike Film Selection

Posted by Andrew

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