The stage musical Passing Strange opens with too-smart-for-his-own-good Daniel Breaker sitting in a South Central Los Angeles Baptist church, bored out of his skull. Then the pastor gets on a roll, and as the choir and organist whip the congregation into a frenzy, Breaker has an epiphany: Though he has zero interest in Christianity, this music and energy are his birthright. Later, Breaker will get turned on to drugs by his choir director, start a punk band with his friends, and travel overseas to learn about unconditional acceptance in Amsterdam and the limits of nihilism in Berlin. All the while, he takes what he needs from others, magpie-like, while adapting his personality to fit in wherever he goes. And all along, Passing Strange’s music keeps heading back to church, drawing on the cumulative power of call-and-response.
Mark Stewart (a.k.a. Stew) of the L.A. psych-pop band The Negro Problem co-wrote Passing Strange along with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald, and their music—an unabashed blend of art-pop, fiery R&B, and pure theater—is catchy and quirky in equal measure. Those who aren’t forgiving where broad gestures are involved may quickly tune it out; some might also roll their eyes at Stew’s frequent wide-eyed invocations of “love” and “the real.” And if his characters were talking about these abstractions instead of singing, then Passing Strange might well be insufferable. But Stew undercuts his own coming-of-age story by commenting on it, sometimes sarcastically, from an older, wiser place. “Everything mattered / It’s so different now,” he sings, with a mixture of awe and rue.
One of the many things Spike Lee does right in documenting the final Broadway performances of Passing Strange is to seek out camera angles that often include Stew, the show’s narrator, on the edge of the frame, watching his younger self screw up. Lee doesn’t exactly reinvent the wheel when it comes to filming live theater, but he moves the camera artfully and edits with an energy that matches the music. And he makes good use of close-ups, capturing the sweaty faces of a troupe of remarkable performers. The actors become characters in and of themselves, especially when they’re wrung-dry and weeping at the end, trying to milk their last moment onstage together as long as possible. “Life is a mistake that only art can correct,” Stew explains at one point, and part of what’s so moving about Passing Strange is that we know as soon as the curtain falls, Stew will have to deal with his memories the old-fashioned way, uncorrected.