Spike Lee Captures Passing Strange’s Mix of Identity Politics and Raw Emotion

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Rock musical Passing Strange might have passed by you in its Broadway run, but thanks to Spike Lee you’re getting a second chance. The documentary version reflects themes the filmmaker has been confronting since his NYU days while capturing the emotions of the cast on the last night of the show’s run at the Belasco Theater. That, and the crossover between Lee’s life and Stew’s — star and narrator of the semi-autobiographical pop-rock bildungsroman — make the project very personal to the director, whose sometimes grumpy exterior has often belied the emotional maelstroms bubbling within his cinema.

We sat down with Lee and Stew to discuss the art of making a film out of a stage production, as well as their shared experiences. One thing we wanted to know was if the parallel between Lee’s own semi-autobiographical work, Crooklyn, was what drew him to the project.

“Well, I wasn’t thinking about my film, I was thinking about my own personal experience,” Spike says. “Stew and I, I’m a little older than him, but we’re still from the same era. He was growing up in South Central, LA, and I was growing up in Brooklyn. And I lost my mother when I was in college. But that was just a small part of it. I just loved the work in general. The story, the whole ex-patriate thing, the music, the songs these guys wrote. As I keep saying, it’s a giant piece of work.”

At the center of the giant is a good old-fashioned identity crisis, angled here through the often-invisible prism of the black middle class. The identity in question is that Mark Stewart (Stew), who narrates the tale of a teen from South Central LA escaping to Europe to discover what is real in life, love, and art. From the ganga-fumed clichés of Amsterdam to the leather-clad clichés of Berlin, the boy constantly tries to reinvent himself through the guises of punk, the French New Wave, and the ghosts of James Baldwin and Josephine Baker. When the bohemian-in-training moves in with a troupe of German performance artists, he eventually embraces the gangsta image to compete with their hardcore artistic and political ideals, and becomes what he calls a “post-modern lawn jockey.”

But the trick is, the young man is also a young version of Stew, who narrates and sings to his age-reduced-self throughout the show’s progression. This creates moments of meta-mayhem, and by the time the young Stew catches up to the Stew-on-stage, you really feel like you are watching a person analyze his life in the moment. It’s all an act, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels, like what the protagonist is in quest of; it feels real.

“This was every actor on that stage’s story,” says Stew. “Every band member in that pit’s story, you know? They knew that this might be it in terms of the time in their lives when they could actually give their entire souls to a story that they knew and felt. They all had the church issues, they all had sexuality issues, they all had vocational issues of what they were going to be. The reason why the performances were so intense, was because they were living this. This was really their story.”

This intensity is where Lee’s cameras come in and separate what we are seeing on the screen from what we would see in a live production. The tears, the sweat, the passion are magnified and you feel privileged to be closer to a cast who, without the aid of setting or props, evokes the entire emotional spectrum. “That’s the very advantage of film right there,” Stew says. “It’s the close-up. When you’re in a film you get to see close-ups, and close-ups are what we are all seeing right now. So in some ways cinema is more like real life than theater because what do we want ultimately than to look at other people’s faces and get a reaction. And in theater if you’re in row 40 that’s not happening.”

This mix of digital cameras and live performance creates something different than a film or a play, which fits in just fine with Stew’s merging of disparate theatrical traditions and his deconstruction of them.

But the show’s greatest achievement, crystallized by the film version, is Stew’s deconstruction of himself, which can also be seen as a deconstruction of Lee as well. Both men have similar routes, took similar paths, and have struggled to reconcile their black identities with their artistic ones. They’ve shared the joy and the hurt of lost love, and lost loved ones, making their joint venture more than just an analysis of 21st century identity, but a tale of what bubbles within us all, which we found just might include a hidden love for musical theater.

Passing Strange opens in limited-release August 21.