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Passing Strange

Art Imitating Life

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.

"Passing Strange" is the one-named artist Stew’s autobiographical hit rock musical, as recorded during its closing night at the Belasco Theater in New York in summer 2008, deftly filmed by Spike Lee for television and now having a limited theatrical run. To someone who absorbed from the very vibe of L.A. that black people were the Otherest Other of them all, it’s passing strange to see how similar life was just a few exits east down the Santa Monica Freeway.

Stew’s autobiographical character (called Youth and played by Daniel Breaker) seeks liberation from Los Angeles’ materialism and its religious fervor: the two sometimes blended in the “Christian catwalk” of his Crenshaw district Baptist church. After an abortive attempt to start a punk-rock band -- in real life Stew was in a group called the Animated -- Youth relocates to Amsterdam, where he’s intoxicated by the freedom and frightened by the hedonism. Then to Berlin, where he’s judged not hard-core enough to be part of a highly political commune, until Youth pretends to be an oppressed ghetto dweller (to his later shame).

Passing Strange has some of the limitations of a stage play on film -- the bombast that doesn’t really echo. No one gets to Broadway today unless they’ve assimilated a little Andrew Lloyd Webber, and certainly this owes a little to the bare-bones song-cycle stage of early Webber -- and at its worst (in its final summing up in favor of the eternal truths of family, love and work), it’s even a little like Stop the World, I Want to Get Off.

Stew himself, now a middle-aged performer about two-thirds the size of Forest Whitaker, does the narration and plays along on a hollow-bodied guitar. Two very theatrical performers give this the energy to close the gap between a filmed play and a proper movie. One is Colman Domingo as, among others, the arch-suave, bitter son of a preacher. The other is the luminous Rebecca Naomi Jones, who makes a huge impression as a series of women in Youth’s life.