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Passing Strange: The Movie

Posted in Film,Music by bourdaghs on the January 29th, 2010

I’ve been a big fan of musician Stew for more than a decade, since I first stumbled across his band The Negro Problem back in the late 1990s. He takes the sound of 1960s sophisticated California pop (think Arthur Lee and Love or Jimmy Webb) and updates it with lyrics that shimmer with wit, intelligence, and poetry. Throw in a remarkable gift for composing haunting melodies and you have a singer-songwriter who I think is a living national treasure. The best gift I ever gave Satoko was for Valentine’s Day 2006, when I was able to get Stew to record a personalized song for her commemorating the holiday. Satoko said it almost made up for all the other crummy presents I’d given her over the years.

So I was delighted when Stew’s musical, Passing Strange, won him some much deserved attention, including a Tony Award for its 2008 Broadway engagement. I thought about flying out to New York to see the show during its two runs there, but never made it. I did snap up the original cast recording CD when it was issued and fell in love with many of the songs on it.

In the end, though, I never saw the show live. Last night, I got to see Spike Lee’s film version, which records the final Broadway performance at the Belasco Theater. I was prepared to like this film, needless to say. But I wasn’t fully prepared for how powerful the experience was. It had me in tears more than once–that is, when I wasn’t laughing or tapping my foot in time to the music.

It’s a Portrait-of-the-Artist-as-a-Young-Man narrative combined with an electrifying rock show: Stew, his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, and band are on stage the whole time, frequently interacting with the actors. The cast is astonishingly good. Many of the players take up multiple roles during the course of the evening, and it is sheer pleasure to watch them inhabit the bodies of radically different sorts of characters. Through it all, Stew serves as the avuncular narrator, stepping up to centerstage whenever the need arises for a rock-and-roll explosion. Spike Lee’s direction is lean but creative: he even gets a cast member to carry a video camera on stage to film one sequence (watch the Special Features section on the DVD for more about this).

I can only guess how much more powerful the show must have been live. It’s difficult to imagine another cast ever taking it on, so probably this filmed version is the best I’ll get. I hate to set you up with excessive expectations that no movie could ever satisfy; undoubtedly, the best way to encounter this would be to stumble across it unexpectedly and be blown away. But I’d hate for anyone to miss this one: do yourself a favor and watch the thing. It’s a work of art, and to paraphrase Stew, life is full of mistakes, but art is where we go to correct them.

3 Responses to 'Passing Strange: The Movie'

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  1. Linda said,

    on January 31st, 2010 at 6:24 pm

    Great post. Thanks for the education and recommendations. Really have to see this film now.

    And, nice job on the 2006 gift for your wife–wow, how do you top THAT? 🙂

    All the best to you and yours.

  2. bourdaghs said,

    on January 31st, 2010 at 8:05 pm

    Thanks, Linda. I should explain about that 2006 Valentine’s Day song. A year or two before that, Stew offered on his website to write and record a song for Valentine’s Day for anyone, but the commission fee was beyond my reach. Then, in 2006, he again announced a similar possibility, but this time he would write one song and then personalize the lyrics for each person who commissioned him for it. The fee was much lower, so I snapped it up and sent in answers to a list of about a dozen questions his staff sent me about Satoko(where did we meet? what was her favorite food? etc.). A month later I received back the very wonderful recording of “Happy Valentine Satoko.” It was a typically offbeat way for Stew to interact with his fans and, yes, it gave me a Valentine’s Day gift I’ll never top…. Anyhow, see the movie and let me know what you think of it. Best, Michael

  3. Linda said,

    on February 2nd, 2010 at 1:32 am

    That’s a great story. Thanks for sharing that with us.

    I will definitely get back to you about the movie, but it may be a while since this mommy doesn’t get many opportunities to watch movies these days.

    Well, good luck planning for Valentine’s 2010!