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By Scott Knopf | January 28, 2009

Going into “Passing Strange,” the only things I knew about the film was that it had something to do with Spike Lee (my favorite director) and a Broadway play. Here’s what I didn’t know:

– The entire film is a recording of the play’s last performance in New York.

– Except for about thirty seconds in between the two acts, no backstage footage is shown.

– The play is a musical. As in, the characters sing quite a bit of dialogue back and forth.

– Film recordings of musicals with no backstage or “Making Of footage” can be entertaining.

A woman who had already seen the movie told me, “It makes you feel like you’re in the audience of a Broadway play,” and I assumed that she was talking about the on-stage segments. It turns out that she was talking about the entire film. But her synopsis isn’t exactly true. “Passing Strange” makes you feel like you’re part of the production, not a member of the audience. Lee’s camera set-ups are unlike any I’ve ever seen. He must have had this play memorized down to every minute detail because that’s exactly what his cameras capture.

Lee’s camera work in “The Original Kings of Comedy” (2000) was impressive but filming a play as energetic and vibrant as “Strange” must have been a hundred times more difficult. When a character deserves a close-up, they get one. When a swooping aerial shot is called for, Lee throws one in. In short, this makes the Tyler Perry play recordings (my only real experience with play recordings) look like a parent’s camcorder video of their kid’s high school production. The cinematography is stunning and the sound is perfect. “Strange” has loud guitars, loud singing, loud everything and yet all of the sound levels are ideal.

As for the acting performances, they’re all really astounding. But of course they are, this cast has been performing the play multiple times a week for over a year. If you’re not good at it by then, you’re in the wrong business. This story about a young artist (Breaker) who moves to Europe to fulfill his creative dreams was born out of the Sundance Institute. It’s only fitting that the film has its world premiere at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival. An interesting note, “Passing Strange” marks Spike Lee’s Sundance debut. The director hoped to preserve the play for future generations and that’s exactly what he’s done.

On top of simply documenting an remarkable production, Lee also made the film as (or possibly more) entertaining as watching the actual Broadway show in person.

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