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Sundance Review: Passing Strange Soars

"A beautiful effort."

Passing Strange is a film I respect and admire, or more technically it's the documentary (by Spike Lee) of a musical that I greatly respect and admire. It's a movie that tackles huge themes in its two-hour running time; faith, art, love, reality, relationships, what we do to fit in, the role of music, and so on and so forth. For tackling life, the universe, and everything, Passing Strange has a place at the table of "worthy" movies for 2009. Does that mean you need to see it as soon as you get the chance? I suppose it depends how seriously you take your music ... and how seriously you take your movies.

The musical Passing Strange already has a solid pedigree. It was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Musical. Now then, if you're a musical-at-the-movies fan your frame of reference is probably efforts along the likes of Dreamgirls, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge. The film Passing Strange is far different than those in that it's a documentary; it's a filming of the stage play, not an adaptation of it. The difference is a critical one to keep in mind because going to see this will be like heading to Broadway for a night. Spike Lee, to his credit, realized the beauty of the musical was right there on stage -- no further tinkering was needed. Spike used 14 cameras at once to capture the action like it's never been done before. Amazingly, you never see a camera you weren't meant to see. Intimate shots were gathered in gorgeous high-definition over the course of three shows and seamlessly edited together. It's a technological triumph as well as an artistic one.

Mercy me, I haven't even talked about the plot structure. Passing Strange chronicles the life of a young black musician who seeks escape from L.A. to find his "real" self. Along the way the very nature of artistic expression is considered, as is the notion of escapism from true intimacy. A fellow named Stew narrates and co-wrote the musical (along with vocalist and bass guitarist Heidi Rodewald). A band is on stage for the entire performance, and they weave in and out of the interaction as the fourth wall is broken. Passing Strange is as much a rock concert as it is a musical, as much a thought piece as it is a movie. It has a lot in common with Synecdoche, NY -- though it's much tauter and more approachable than Kaufman's quixotic beast.

You can see films like Transformers and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which are mindlessly entertaining and satisfyingly numb. But these aren't the films that drive the medium forward, and in 20 years they aren't the films that matter either.

Passing Strange, for attempting something noble -- and despite how exhausting this much thinking can be -- is a beautiful effort. De'Adre Aziza jumps off the screen in three different roles, Spike shows off stellar camera work, and the enigmatic Stew takes us on a roller coaster ride of emotion and joy. When you get the chance to see this one you should do so. It's vibrant and compelling. We don't get to see films of this measure very often, and it's a rare treat when the power of voice is used to make us happy, sad, and thoughtful. So I guess I'm reversing myself here: if you've gotten this far in the review that means you've got an attention span ... and thus Passing Strange isn't something that you should let pass you by.

Grade: A