Rousing, devastating, invigorating, painful, joyful, soulful—all those adjectives don’t even begin to describe Passing Strange, but it’s a start. Composer-performer Stew’s gut-busting, heart-wrenching look back at his own journey from callow L.A. youth to world-weary adult was the 2007 Obie-winning, Drama Desk–nabbing Off Broadway sensation that became the 2008 musical event of the Great White Way. And instead of letting the high-wattage production vanish into the ether, a smitten Spike Lee rolled cameras for posterity during the show’s final performances.
His concert film is expertly crafted, but it’s also a little uninspired, as though an overly reverential Lee fretted about bruising such a beautiful bloom. He needn’t have worried: The electric cast is too vivid to be overwhelmed by any cinematic choices. The talent never lags: from Stew’s alter ego (Breaker) and his suffering mother (Davis) to a motley crew of South Central neighbors, hash-hazed Amsterdammers and postpunk Berliners (rousingly animated in multiple roles by Rebecca Naomi Jones, De’Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo and Chad Goodridge).
Maybe someday a film will transpose all the theatrical pantomime of Stew’s biographical memories into something that’s more of a creative collaboration than a commemoration. Until then, Lee’s recorded staging preserves the production’s potent DNA. You want to deal with the real? This will pass for it—with flying colors.