There was a futile rush-ticket line stretching halfway down the block outside the Director's Guild Theatre on 57th Street last night for the New York premiere of Spike Lee's Passing Strange, which documents the critically acclaimed rock musical using a concert-doc aesthetic not unlike Jonathan Demme's Stop Making Sense. Tickets to the extremely sold-out Tribeca Film Festival screening were exclusively offered to American Express Cardmembers, but Passing Strange fans shut out last night will at least be able to see it on TV; in a post-show discussion last night, Lee revealed that the film will be broadcast on PBS's Great Performances series, and he added that a theatrical distribution may be in the works. (There is also a second and final screening tonight as part of TFF.)
Though nothing can replicate the experience of being in the theater for the exhilarating live production, Lee's film is the next best thing (and the only option at this point, as the show's Broadway run ended last year after six months). Eschewing wide-angle framing for intimate close-ups, his film situates the viewer up onstage with the performers, highlighting every bead of sweat (of which there are many) and every word mysteriously scrawled on the hand of Stew, the show's co-creator, who joined Lee after the screening with his creative partner Heidi Rodewald.
Asked about the ink on his hand, Stew explained, "Mr. Lee gave me some notes about the show, and we wrote those things down on my hand. Because I basically can't remember these things when I'm in the moment... And I said, 'This is bullshit, man, because they're going to be able to see this on camera.' And Spike was like, "Eh, that's not gonna read!' He just wanted to make sure I did the shit he wanted me to do." To which Lee added, "If we'd had the money we could have digitally removed it."
And during an exchange about the Broadway audience's reaction to the show, Stew recalled one performance during which "a guy in the first row was like [makes scowling, squinty-eyed face] the whole show. I was so out of my mind at this guy that at one point during the performance I went up to him and got in his face and yelled, 'What the fuck!?' And then I found out after that he just had bad eyes and he was just doing that in order to focus! He was waiting for me outside by the stage door and when I saw him I was thinking, 'What the fuck are you doing here, you hated the play!' It turned out he was actually a huge fan."