Passing Strange (2009, Annie Dorsen and Spike Lee)

From the start, Passing Strange is a spectacular filming and presentation of a stage production. Lee’s direction, Barry Alexander Brown’s editing, Matthew Libatique’s photography, they’re all great from go. Lee and Libatique have highlights throughout—and Brown’s cutting excels during the busiest sections—but it’s clear Strange will look great no matter the content. Of course, Lee directs for the actors’ performances, which I’ll get to in a bit, so again, he still gets occasional peaks thanks to them.

Strange is the story of a young Black man (Daniel Breaker) who moves from Los Angeles to Europe in his late teens, searching for a place where he can be himself. Narrating the story is Stew; Stew and his band have songs throughout; it’s a narrated memoir rock musical, with Stew, Lee, and stage director Annie Dorsen all taking big swings with the medium. Stew isn’t just the narrator; he’s also the critical viewer; we’re watching him watch his remembered past unfold to music, a Technicolor dream. Dorsen’s staging—which has the musical cast interact with the band—is incredible. Then Lee’s direction just adds another layer. Passing Strange is so good at making the experience feel like watching a live performance, it’s weird not to stand and applaud at the end, especially as Stew—in terms of performance (he’s got the narrator and musician hats on especially for the third act, as he interrogates himself)—keeps upping the dramatic ante. Passing Strange is about a lot, being a Black man in the United States, being a Black man raised in Christianity, being a son, being a parent, being a friend, being an artist, being a white European girl, being a gay, closeted preacher’s son, the list goes on and on because almost everyone ends up getting a spotlight. There are only six cast members, and only Breaker and Eisa Davis (as his mother) play one part; the other four create multiple distinct characters throughout, which turns Strange into a showcase for the exceptionally talented cast. For the first act, it seems like the performances are going to be the best part. It changes once Stew—as writer—takes more significant swings, but the performances are always singular.

The first act takes place in L.A., with teenage Breaker arguing with Davis about going to church. However, he changes his mind once he sees pastor Chad Goodridge do a rockabilly sermon. Breaker’s enthusiasm for the music lands him in the youth choir, which seems terrible until he finds out preacher’s son Colman Domingo, who runs it, starts every choir practice with a good smoke out. Domingo and Breaker bond over unrealized dreams. But while Domingo is resigned to his private trap, Breaker’s able to get out of his—he saves up and moves away to Europe, abandoning mom Davis and the punk rock band he made out of the church choir.

His first stop is Amsterdam, in search of public weed-smoking, espresso, and European freedom. There he immediately finds a community who simultaneously sees the color of his skin but assigns no fear to it. The piece about new friend De’Adre Aziza letting him crash at her place is the first singular song, play, and film combination. Aziza’s first part in Strange is as a fellow (Black) teen at the church, but she’s now a Dutch girl. Goodridge, Domingo, and Rebecca Naomi Jones all play Dutch or at least European roles now. They’re all going to do fantastic work, with both Aziza and Jones showing off until Domingo turns in the most eighties German rock performance ever.

But first, it’s time for Aziza to show off. Everyone’s going to get their chance, though Goodridge’s best sequence is the rockabilly church performance; his acting’s good, his characters are never integral to the plot. Aziza and Jones both play love interests, with Jones as a West German girl. Breaker’s a bad artist boyfriend to both of them, which gives them lots of acting and singing material. Aziza’s so good it seems unimaginable Jones is going to be able to compare, but then she’s phenomenal as well. There’s always good interaction between the actors—particularly during the musical numbers—so there’s never any one-upping quality about it.

Though the third act belongs to Breaker, Davis, and Stew. At the beginning of the film, when Lee’s establishing the camera’s narrative distance, Davis sets the bar for acting in close-up. She acts the hell out of it when, since it’s a stage production, she really doesn’t have to act the hell out of it. But everyone’s going to do it. It makes the performances all the more impressive when you see the supporting cast still working even though no one, not even the camera really, can see them.

Wonderful acting. Wonderful music. Wonderful everything.

The third act has some exceptional emotional heft, which the play heaps on, starting with Davis, then adding it to Breaker, while revealing Stew’s got the sum total of it all. Then once he confronts “himself,” there’s a whole other level. And Stew’s not done. After the first set bows, when it feels like there should be an encore—any encore—he goes with one to add yet another layer onto Passing Strange.

It’s superlative work from all involved.

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