Finding the Real
Spike Lee's filmed version of Passing Strange--that dark horse of a rock-musical coming-of-age tale which garnered 7 Tony noms and won one statuette for Best Book (P.S.: the New York Drama Critics Circle voted it Best Musical, which makes one wonder if such a show even stands a chance now that critics are cut out of the Tony Process. But I digress.)--opens LA.'s Downtown Film Festival tonight. And while it's great for Stew and crew to have a permanent record of their Broadway moment--which I missed--is filming a play ever worth the effort?
After all, the thing about live theater is that it's live, right? That's what makes it special. All those people together in the same room, the energy, the hormones, the chance that it could all go off the rails or converge into an amazing, shining beacon of synchronicity. And then there's acting for the stage, which is a completely different critter than acting for the screen. Whenever live theater is filmed, unless it's filmed as, well, a film, it's like watching Kabuki. But really, really bad Kabuki.
I often Netflix filmed productions as homework for upcoming shows, and it's always a matter of the ends justifying the means; I watch because it will help the review, not because it gives me much pleasure. The actors' faces emote to the back rows because they're supposed to be life-sized, not 30 feet high or shot in close-up. Onscreen, stage acting can't help looking corny. It's for a different medium where subtleties are in the language or direction, but not so much the face.
Of course, Lee is no stranger to filming staged performance. 2000's The Original Kings of Comedy not only knocked the comedy film genre out of the park, but also mainstreamed the careers of all four featured comedians, and gave some smart producer the entire premise for The Bernie Mac show (R.I.P. to both Mr. Mac and his show), which I, for one, watched every single week.
Lee filmed two of the Kings' live performances, editing them together for the final product--a method he repeated for Passing Strange. However, to facilitate his vision for its cinematography, he also shot the show once through without an audience, and of the two live shows he filmed, one was the cast's final performance at Broadway's Belasco Theatre.
So does it work?
Well, I watched the DVD alone in my bedroom and gave it a standing ovation, applause and all. For real. And if that sounds bizarre to you, you either haven't seen it yet, or I wouldn't want to hang out with you anyway. Point is, the effect, both with and without an audience equals a damn fine film of a damn fine show, and its editing is so seamless you never notice the difference anyway. Lee tightens in to get intimate with the characters without making them look like puppets and zooms out to capture their frenzied crescendos. Yeah, sometimes they're miked and flinging sweat, but most of the time they're not playing to the crowd, they're playing to each other, and that's what separates Lee's film from other efforts to capture Broadway magic onscreen. (Plus it's really, really nice to see Daniel Breaker out of that donkey suit and burning up the stage as an actual human being.) It may be ironic that Spike Lee found the real by making it less so, but that was Stew's point anyway.
If you're not in L.A. and can't catch the film tonight, it will be available on cable On Demand starting August 21, and will air again in 2010 on PBS' "Great Performances" series.
Don't believe the hype: the movie is SO much better than this lame trailer.