Directed by Spike Lee
Following the baggy Clint Eastwood rebuke Miracle at St. Anna, Spike Lee brought two quickie live-performance documentaries, Kobe Doin' Work and Passing Strange, to this year's Tribeca festival. The latter film is a multi-camera HD record of the Broadway closing night of the eponymous rock musical, three of whose players turned up in bit parts in the 1980s bookends of Miracle. Though it feels more like one of those Fathom Events than a feature film, Passing Strange is not quite a 135-minute-long demonstration of Lee's celebrity seal of approval.
In the musical — a presumably autobiographical piece written, composed, and narrated by a man who goes only by the name of Stew — an unnamed aspiring singer-songwriter flees black middle-class life in South Central L.A. to chase "real" experience, first in Amsterdam and then in Berlin, where, naturally, the Bildung really gets under way. The show has substantial, and ultimately moving, points to make about race, identity, and family, and the music is appealingly eclectic, but its poking fun at the various intellectual projects of its cast of European caricatures becomes tiresome. In one laugh line a Dutch café dweller declares that representational art is "just an ego stroke"; in another a German youth proclaims the verse-chorus-verse-chorus pop song structure to be "phallocentric." Statements like these, delivered by actors with deliberately over-the-top accents, abound. Parodies of purportedly self-serious world cinema — Fellini, Bergman, and Pasolini are all name-checked, and Godard and Truffaut broadly imitated — are also prominently featured. The Bergman lampoons in (500) Days of Summer fell flat, and the similarly pitched takeoffs aren't funny here either, though the filmed-stage form means that Passing Strange comes armed with a robust audience laugh track. Perhaps these jokes work better when presented outside the medium they attempt to gently prod.
Though this cannot exactly be called a Spike Lee joint, the director's coverage of the show is dynamic. He and cinematographer Matthew Libatique choose angles that efficiently convey the action on the barebones set, but they often get in tight enough to capture the sweat beading on the faces of the actors, and they frequently cut to the musicians, boxed in tightly by their sunken spots in the stage. During intermission the cameras also take a quick trip backstage, where Stew checks his e-mail before changing his shirt. Lee's approach to filming theater is fairly straightforward, but he adds to Passing Strange the intriguing component of actors doin' work. This helps keep things interesting when the otherwise fine musical is taking shots at performance art and pseudo-academic language — in other words, some of the slowest-moving targets imaginable.
Opens August 21