Great Performances: Season 38, Episode 7

Passing Strange (16 Jan. 2009)

TV Episode  |   |  Biography, Drama, Music
7.9
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Ratings: 7.9/10 from 411 users   Metascore: 85/100
Reviews: 10 user | 24 critic | 11 from Metacritic.com

A young black artist leaves his Los Angeles digs and travels to Europe to find himself. A theatrical stage production of the original Broadway musical.

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Cast

Episode credited cast:
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Edwina / Marianna / Sudabey
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Youth
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Mother
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Mr.Franklin / Joop / Mr. Venus
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Rev. Jones / Terry / Christophe / Hugo
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Sherry / Renata / Desi
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Mom - Understudy
Stew ...
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A young black artist leaves his Los Angeles digs and travels to Europe to find himself. A theatrical stage production of the original Broadway musical.

Plot Summary | Plot Synopsis


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16 January 2009 (USA)  »

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Trivia

Normally during the song "Amsterdam" Colman Domingo as Joop remarks that the European lifestyle "makes Berkeley look like the Bible Belt" but for this special performance he replaces Berkeley with Spike Lee who directed this film. See more »

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User Reviews

 
an epic rock musical about something simple: finding the art in yourself, living
3 September 2009 | by (United States) – See all my reviews

Passing Strange is a powerful rock musical/opera/Greek tragedy that plays out like few rock musical/opera/Greek tragedies I can think of. Maybe Tommy comes to mind, but in this case the writer of the book and the songs, Stew, is concerned with someone who knows well enough about the life being led, and about finding what is "real" about it. It's a profound story, but not simply for the actual story being told. We've seen this before, sure. It's the combination of the elements, of making the songs and music integral with the character himself and the places he tries to find and live in. It's about love and loss, being lost and unsure of the direction of one's life, the paramount nature (and lack thereof) of family, of the consequences that come with a life without any accountability, and what music and songs do to it (one such scene, for example, is when Daniel Breaker's 'Youth' plays a song about losing a girl, and the song keeps going on as there's nothing else around him to stop him).

It's a brilliant and audacious production, full of true variety in musical tastes and styles. It has a few quasi-typical 'musical' songs, sure, the kind of songs you probably wouldn't listen to outside of the context of watching the show live or watching this concert movie unless you're a die-hard musical fan. But most of them are catchy, and all of them have lyrical integrity and work fully as part of telling a story and revealing character and theme. In fact, I can't really think of a single song or moment of musical inspiration that disappointed me; only the first couple minutes of the 'Berlin' musical number threw me for a loop, but then again it's unlike anything else in the show - until one gets acclimated to its amazement and its warped sense of humor. Another great thing too, I should add, is Stew's sense of exuberance of life, its humor coming out of the ordinary (nagging mother) or the referential ("What about the Clash?" one of the band members asks about the validity of social-conscious punk).

What makes this live-shot concert movie so engaging (not so much documentary, although Spike Lee throws in a few moments with the cast backstage in the intermission it's nothing substantial to make it a real documentary) are two things really. First, of course, is the outstanding nature of the content: all of the first-rate performances, mostly by actors playing multiple characters based on the setting (from LA to Amsterdam to Berlin, with Stew and his band members as a Greek chorus commenting and providing juxtaposition), all of the energy and force of the music that is perfect for a full audience to experience, and how the author's own life experience ultimately informs the material (I loved Stew's little story about a pretzel vendor laying it down for him about reality being a construct for one's self, which leads into the end of the show).

Secondly though is the quality of the film-making. And this is where Passing Strange succeeds wonderfully as 'taped' theater. It's like Lee took all of the practice he's had filming live before (i.e. Original Kings of Comedy, Kobe Doin' Work) and helped elevate live theater for cinematic expression. Some of this, to be sure, should be attributed to Matthew Libatique, a sublime cinematographer (how much he had to do with the actual lighting of the show itself or how the camera got it I don't know) who incorporates some 16mm footage at times in the show, but at only the right moments based on the scene or song like the acid trip or Breaker's intentionally pretentious monologue while in Berlin. But as well it's the editing; Lee has so much coverage here that he can create scenes out of just actors on a stage, and incorporates the band members who are often supposed to be out of view, and as well Stew's facial reactions that the audience in the theater might not see all the time. You can lose yourself in just watching it as a 'movie' instead of being reminded it's live theater, and as kinetic as it can get (it is Spike Lee after all) it compliments the material.

Go see it, either on a big screen (which if you're in the NYC area is highly advisable) or, if not, with a bunch of friends or family around a good-sized TV. It's beautiful work all around, for Stew on his closing night of the show and for the director filming it who has one of his best works in years by just keeping right up with everybody else. Sensational is the word for it.


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