While the end credits indicate that Passing Strange is "A Spike Lee Joint," Lee's role in this cinematic adaptation of the hit Broadway show is essentially that of a glorified cameraman. It is a testament to the vivacity of this relentlessly dynamic musical that Lee does his best to remain conspicuously absent from the performance. In fact, the few moments when he actively attempts to make his presence felt -- by throwing in some superfluous camera effects -- are among the film's only weak points. The singular star of this endeavor is Stew, the critically acclaimed and popularly neglected musician who wrote and created the original show. Stew co-wrote the almost ubiquitous rock & roll score (along with Heidi Rodewald) and is constantly on-stage in a role perhaps best described as a modern, musical version of the benshi, the Japanese performers who used to provide animated narration for films during the silent era.
As if this load were not sufficiently stressful for Stew, he is also the subject of the show, which depicts his idealistic attempts to forge a genuine identity through various forms of artistic expression. While there is a discernible narrative, as a young Stew (played by another actor, Daniel Breaker) struggles through the monotony of a suburban adolescence before emerging as a somewhat specious artist in Europe, the defining structure of the film is provided by song, rather than story. By adding electrifying music to his personal memories and emotions, Stew has granted them universal significance, until his intrepid quest for authenticity begins to take on hints of transcendent wisdom. At the height of the show-stopping musical numbers, neither the camera nor the stage can contain the choreographed chaos of the frantic dancing bodies, as the invigorating sonic chords and the pulse of chanted choruses combine into an anthem, whose energy and relevance shifts and swells with every repetition. There are moments when it seems that the secret to a fulfilled existence as an artist might just burst from the side of Stew's head like some Athena, and start grooving alongside the performers.
The good news is that Passing Strange is the most compelling, the most vibrant, and probably the most magnificent piece of musical theater in recent memory. The bad news is that, as with any self-reflexive, kinetic event, the power of its effects demonstrate the law of diminishing returns, such that the performers themselves are positively drenched in the experience, and the live audience is delirious from their participation, while those relegated to seeing Passing Strange only as cinema may merely hum the tunes while they walk out of the theater, before surrendering to the next set of distractions.