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Spike Lee's cinematic chronicle of the fascinating, award-winning rock musical Passing Strange — which went from an off-Broadway production at New York City's Public Theater to a limited Broadway run — airs on the Channel Thirteen series Great Performances this week.
Based on the musical developed at the Sundance Theater Lab and Sundance's Directors Lab, Lee’s acclaimed film, Passing Strange The Movie, premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. The live-show document then had a celebrated homecoming premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival and was greeted with packed audiences, positive reviews and a panel discussion with cast, director and producers. It went on to have limited theatrical exposure, became the first release through Sundance Selects video-on-demand in August, 2009, and had a DVD release this week as well.
Created by singer/songwriter Stew, and co-composed with his creative partner Heidi Rodewald, the guitar-infused musical details a young African-American man trying to sort out the conflicting cultural messages assaulting him as a teenager, Raised in a religious family from somewhere in Los Angeles, the frustrated kid (played throughout by Daniel Breaker) is suffocated by his mother's obsession on family, church and mainstream values.
Eventually, he follows in James Baldwin and Josephine Baker's footsteps and hightails it to Europe to explore the world, from outrageous Amsterdam to politicized Berlin. Misadventures with sex, drugs, politics and art ensue as his eyes are opened. While he finds himself a stranger in strange lands, he aches to find out what's "real" in life for him.
Applauded for its originality, emotional resonance, and high-octane score, Stew's creation offers a window into lives we may know about and provides some universal truths. So when Oscar-nominated director Lee turned his cameras toward the stage for this filmed performance, it was preserved in a way rare for most Broadway musicals. There is even talk of a filmic retelling being produced.
Stew's years as a leader of rock bands paid off in driving the performances of the actors and of the band, where one isn't subordinate to the other. Though the show was long, the music is awesome and stays with you long after you watch it. You walk out a performance wanting more — which thankfully can be had by repeat viewings of this film.Q: With the film we get to see things happening in front of us that would never been seen in a theater — it's something else.Stew: That’s the very advantage of film right there; it’s the close-up. Even though when you’re in theater you’re watching actual human beings, when [seeing it] in a film [like this] you get to see close ups, and close-ups are what we’re all seeing right now. So in some ways cinema is more like real life than theater, because what do we really want ultimately than to look at people’s faces and get a reaction. And in theater, if you’re in row 40 that’s not happening.Q: Talk about getting close -- singer Coleman Domingo sweats a lot and you could really see everything. Shooting in HD is really interesting — did you talk about the look of the film? SL: They were all sweating.Q: Was it always the way you wanted to go?SL: We couldn’t afford to shoot film. With shooting live performances, they get burnt with film a lot of time because at the right moment you need a magazine change. Again, we had to look at the first show during the break between the Saturday matinee and the Saturday evening show, and we just barely made it. Matt and I talked a lot about it; we just wanted to enhance the enjoyment for the audience member, and like Stew said, really give them those close-ups that really only people in the first row can see.Q: If money weren’t an issue, would you have shot in film?SL: No.Q: Did you discuss what was to be seen or was it all your vision; how much input did you guys have? Stew: All his.SL: It’s just a matter of seeing the show a lot of times, knowing the show, and knowing where the camera had to be at at crucial moments. We filmed the last three performances, there was a Saturday matinee, an evening, and we came back for the Sunday matinee. In between the two shows on Saturday, we watched a whole matinee and Mattie [Matthew] Libatique, the great cinematographer and I, and the operators, watched all together and said, “We missed some shit; we got to get it.”Q: Did you watch from different places in the theater?SL: No, we had monitors in the basement.Stew: There were about, what, 10 monitors, and we were all in this really sweaty room that they made for us to watch. And all the monitors have names of the different camera men, and he was screaming — in a very nice, funny way — he would be screaming by name, “Frank, man, you got to pull back next time! And Joey, who taught you how to shoot like that!” He was watching all of the screens at once in real time. And we never stopped and rewound; he was just yelling out and Mattie was up front and me and the actors and the band we were just looking around like, “How do they do this? How does he watch 12 at one time?” They just went over the whole entire film basically, and then we shot it again. We just felt like we were in good hands.Q: Spike, how many times did you have to see this show before you felt that you sort of knew it and knew what to shoot?SL: I think I’d seen the show, combined with the Public, about 10 times. But also the operators, everybody who was shooting, they saw it at least once. So you have to be familiar with what you’re doing; I think it would be a disservice to all of the hard work that they did if people just come up and get behind the camera without knowing what the subject matter is.Q: Thematically this production touches onto a lot of things you’ve dealt with in your work, and Crooklyn in particular; were you were conscious of that when you first saw the production? Or did you just fall in love with it and not think, "Wow, this speaks to a lot of my films as well."SL: I wasn’t thinking about my films, but I was thinking about my own personal experience. Crooklyn is semi-autobiographical and Stew and I — I’m a little older than him, but we’re still the same era — and he was growing up in South Central L.A. while I was growing up in Brooklyn.
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, not just one specific thing. The story, the whole expatriate thing, the music, the songs these guys wrote. I keep saying, "It’s a giant piece of work."Stew: Crooklyn is the only movie emotionally — and Spike, I’ve never told you this — that I really can’t get through. It’s the only film I’ve ever seen in my entire life where I actually had to stop close to the end and just be like, “Okay I’ll get back to it.”Q: Why is that?Stew: Because the same thing that he saw in this, I see in that film; it’s so close to home, particularly in that film, because, I mean, he pulls up things like TV commercials from Soul Train era, like things that hit you on a visceral, unconscious level. Like seeing The Partridge Family in a black home I know, that’s my whole story. SL: Black people watch The Partridge Family and The Brady Bunch too.Stew: Exactly. And so [with] whole cauldron that he set up in there. it’s the only film where I really had to stop it.Q: Obviously, Stew, there are a lot of things you reflect on about your life in Passing Strange. And Spike, since 2009 was the 25th anniversary of Do the Right Thing, knowing what you know now, what would you say to the person you were 20 years ago? Can both of you address this question. SL: 20 years ago? I was 26. Stew: I would say Spike Lee’s going to make a movie of your play [laughs]. No. That’s why I have a daughter; because I get to talk to a 17-year-old about my life. I don’t know what I would say really; I think I wouldn’t tell myself to do necessarily anything different except maybe… It’s very difficult to teach a 17-year-old or 19-year-old like, “You’ve got to see your grandmother,” you know what I mean? It’s hard.SL; In your play, you are talking to yourself. As a narrator, you are talking to yourself as a youth [laughs]. Wait a minute, man.Stew: Yeah, right right. I guess what I would say to him — I would make this play [laughs]! The play would be what I would say, I guess you’re right. This is why I mention my daughter, because my daughter’s 17 and she wants to be an artist, and sometimes you just want to grab them and say, “Remember all these things; these people are important.” Part of being 17 is that you don’t know, you want to go and hang out with that friend that you’re not going to even know in 6 months. You know the beauty of being a dad is that I can look at her and say, “This is your first boyfriend. Your first.”SL: That can be a nightmare though, too. My daughter’s 14.Stew: That’s why you make art, that’s why you made Crooklyn, that’s why you made Passing Strange, to say, “Hey, look, here’s what we missed; this is what it used to be like, here’s what we missed.” But you can’t shake a 17-year-old into being what you want them to be. I mean, they’re not an adult; they’re not close to mortality and all those kind of things. So, yeah, you just make a play and you hope for the best.Q: What have you learned that you would say to yourself?SL: It’s really hard for me to answer a hypothetical question like that because I didn’t write a play where I can talk to myself like that [laughs]. I’ve been very lucky because every time I was about to make a big misstep the creator or whoever would just… I’d be like, "One more step and I’m going off the cliff." and something would happen and go, “Uh uh, go this way.” At the time that would happen I’d be mad and then it would later be revealed that if I went that [other] way it could have been not a good thing. Someone’s looked out for me.Q: When you saw yourself on the stage from a whole other point of view, how did it affect you? Did it change you or make you think more about being viewed from this side or that? Do you see things about yourself that you’d say, "I want to focus on that aspect or this aspect in a way that I hadn’t thought of before with the next project?"Stew: No because I think the thing about both of us is we’ve been doing this for a while now. I think if we were 22 we’d be analyzing it to make corrections like, “Oh I think I’ll wear green next time,” or something. But I mean we kind of already know what we look good in and I know my guy in Harlem to go to get my goatee looking way better than it looks right now. When I’m [being] a Spike Lee movie. it’s real easy; you go into the salon — one of them “bourgee” black Harlem salons — and go, “I’m about to be in a Spike Lee movie tomorrow,” and suddenly the whole salon surrounds you. And then you come out looking great. So, nothing changed, and the combination we were already comfortable with ourselves, and then you get this guy who’s framing you to make you look as good as you can, so it’s all really cool.Q: Did you redirect anything? I mean, they’ve been doing it for a long time.Stew: Let me speak because he’s been very humble about this. I was definitely directed in a very particular area because there’s a moment where I get to be with the audience and kind of really sing to the audience doing the “It’s Alright” section, and that’s where the audience gets pumped up. He went into my dressing room the morning of; he waited till the morning of shooting and said, “I need you to get them on their feet.” And the thing is, nobody, including the director of the play, had ever really directed me, especially in my zone. Which my zone is when I’m not in a play anymore and I’m dealing with my crowd. I’ve been doing this for a very long time, and nobody had dared tell me anything about when I’m in my zone. And I do a pretty good job of getting the people riled up, but he said, ‘We need them on their feet; this is the shot I need.” We had a conversation about my influences and he said, “I need you to roll call.” So if you look at the film you’ll see magic marker on my hand where I’m trying to remember the things that he said. It’s all in the film; I’m like, “Is this going to show up? It’s not going to read.” I got all these notes from him that morning and to me it was kind of a moment of truth because he was asking me to do something that I had never done in two years of eight shows a week. It was a challenge and what would have happened if it wouldn’t have worked with the cameras rolling? Shit, it could have been really embarrassing.Q: But it did work.Stew: It totally worked.Q: You say in the film, "When we are in the presence of art we are taking the cure." This is a very personal journey that you bare for us, similar to what he does with Crooklyn. Talk to the cure; how does that work?Stew: I feel like art is like religion in that it offers a critique of society as we know it. There wouldn’t be a need to go to church, there wouldn’t be a need to look at artwork to me if we didn’t want to get a different perspective. Art and religion both say that the status quo is not enough; I want to get another perspective on this. Am I right?SL: You’re right.Stew: So it’s like, this isn’t working for me, I need to see somebody else’s vision of how this world could be and what’s wrong with this world and what’s right with it. That’s why we go to movies, that’s why we read books; we want to see what somebody else is thinking. Tell me something about this world I’m struggling with. So that’s what I mean by the cure; we’re looking for something else.Q: Spike, you made a conscious decision to film the play not make a film interpretation. I wonder about that decision as opposed to filming the story of the play and going to Berlin, or to Amsterdam. SL: I saw it twice at the Public, was blown away by it, and then I thought, “How would I do this as a film?” The first thing I said was, "I don't know if you could get it on film; Negroes would play Dutch and German people? That's not going to work."
I had someone from [the production company] Imagine come to the show; I had recently done Inside Man for Brian Grazer and Ron Howard, who own Imagine, and they sent somebody but they weren’t really feeling it, for them to option the play for a film. So then it went away and it moved to Broadway and the thing that was troubling to me was that, and I had this happen to me on 25th Hour where stuff is based upon the award, so we’re going to spend more money on 25th Hour if we get an Academy Award nomination. And with Passing Strange, like, well, we’re struggling at the box office so we really need to win a whole bunch of Tonys to keep this thing going. When they didn’t win those whole bunch of Tonys it was like, “Alright, it’s not going to be that much longer.” And that’s when Steve Klein, one of the producers, approached me about making sure this thing will live on forever, and we filmed the final three performances.Q: How did you empathize with theater actors in comparison with film actors? Do you see yourself writing a play?SL: My wife’s been on me years about doing it. A long time ago she said Do the Right Thing should be made as a musical. But I didn’t have to do any directing; Stew mentioned the thing I told him but writer Annie Dorsen had done a great job and she’d been with these guys forever so it was set in place, it was done. So it was just a couple things that we did structurally but it was not really done as far as directing actors.Q: Is there a difference between theater actors and film actors. Is there more of a diva-esque kind of thing with film?SL: I didn’t see any of that; they worked hard. The final Saturday we did the matinee, evening, we came back and shot the final final show which was Sunday matinee, and then we came back the next day after the show closed and shot it without an audience all the way through, stopping and starting. So people’s voices were shot, really, [by] the end.Stew: I just want to say that the distinct advantage of doing this was that he caught us at a time when we were like a really well oiled machine. He also walked into my dressing room and said, “Do you want to see the movie?” and I said, “What do you mean?” and he just kind of like flicked through a little camera and he showed me all these angles, and I was like, “Wow I’ve never seen that movie before. This is the movie I’m about to step into.” So we all walked in already knowing, it was like, I’ll say the Lakers. It was like the Lakers in Magic Johnson days where you just kind of walked out and it was like, “All we have to do is run these plays and we will win.” And that’s what we did; we just went out and we ran our plays.Q: There’s a community of an audience and actors; there's nothing like that Broadway/Off-Broadway community of New York. You showed a sense of community as much as anyone else, connecting with then you subsequently, seems a part of this, and about the themes of this show too.Stew: I can’t overemphasize the fact that each of these actors knew that the next thing they might be in, the next 10 things they might be in, were not going to speak to their souls. This was every actor on that stage’s story. This is every band member in that pit’s story. They knew that this might be it in terms of the time in their lives when they can actually give their entire souls to a story that they knew and felt and had lived every line. They all had a family, they all had the church issues, they all had sexuality issues, they all had vocational issues of what you’re going to be; “What? You want to be an actor?” That’s just as crazy as saying you want to be a musician. Crazier in some way; at least [as] a musician you can sit on the corner and make a quarter. So I’m just saying, for them, the reason why the performances to me were so intense is because they were living this; this was really their story, and that’s lucky.
For more by Brad Balfour: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brad-balfour
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