THE DVD SHELF: Spike Lee's "Passing Strange" and "Michael Jackson's This Is It"

News   THE DVD SHELF: Spike Lee's "Passing Strange" and "Michael Jackson's This Is It"
 
This month we look at Spike Lee's film of the Broadway production of Stew's Passing Strange; Kenny Ortega's documentary about Michael Jackson's final concert that never was; and the Blu-ray transfer of the Buster Keaton classic "The General."
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Passing Strange came to Broadway in the winter of 2008 and immediately stirred things up. To some it was the bravest and brightest new musical to appear since Spring Awakening, featuring a one-named songwriter/star called Stew, who brought a new and relevant voice to Broadway. (Much the same was said, at the very same moment, about songwriter/star Lin-Manuel Miranda and his In the Heights, but that is irrelevant to the present discussion.) Other playgoers found Passing Strange to be admirable but far from brilliant; a third set just plain didn't like it.

I myself fell into the second category. A brave new musical, this Passing Strange; but foreign and uninvolving. To bring Spring Awakening back into the discussion, that show featured a score which was decidedly not my type of music. Even so, I found the kinetic energy of the material and the staging instantly involving. (This on three separate occasions, Off-Broadway, at a final preview uptown, and during awards season). This was not my reaction at Passing Strange; I found the score loud and unsettling, the staging unfocused, and the story less than involving.

This left me with mixed feelings when it came time to pop Spike Lee's Passing Strange: The Musical [IFC] into the DVD player. True, Mr. Lee is an admirable filmmaker who finds a way to make everything interesting; but still, he did not have the luxury of preparing a new screenplay and going into the studio or out on location. He was filming the actual stage production, at the Belasco; the same cast, the same material. What could he possibly make of this?

Well, I'll tell you: for me, he made sense of this. That is, he took that same production that I found unfocused and overwhelming and focused it. As at the Belasco, Stew is right up there in the middle of everything all the time. But in the theatre, I couldn't always decipher what he was telling us; his vibrant performance style and overpowering presence monopolized everything, too much so. Mr. Lee has him front and center on screen, frequently in close up, serving as narrator, interlocutor and guide. Stew, on the screen, is warm and wise and funny, elements that didn't come across to me to this degree in the theatre. The same holds true for the others. The characters stand out here in a way they didn't, for me, on stage. So in watching Spike Lee's version of Stew's Passing Strange, I felt like I was seeing something familiar but something quite different. And considerably more entertaining. So yes, go watch this new-style movie musical. Spike Lee has figured out what to do and how to do it. On a side note, let me add that Daniel Breaker — who was so impressive on stage as Stew's younger self — is even better here; perhaps because we can see his performance that much closer. (He went on to play Donkey in Shrek.) Bonus features include an interview with Stew and co-composer Heidi Rodewald; a backstage warmup with the actors; a session in the makeup room; and Heidi giving an abbreviated backstage tour.

What are we to make of Michael Jackson's This Is It [Sony], a "making of" chronicle of something that never was? "This Is It": a look at the grand concert engagement fated never to be? "This Is It": the really big deal, the grandest personal appearance by the greatest performer ever? "This Is It": all there is, the end of the line, kaput? What have they come up with — they meaning director Kenny Ortega of "High School Musical" fame (and, Broadway-wise, Marilyn, a fabled two-week flop of 1983); the promoters of the concert, who had all sorts of money tied up in the enterprise, and who had to refund all that ticket money; and the tangled web of heirs, whose lusting over rights and royalties has been publicly on view, and not very pretty. I suppose the correct answer is "all of the above," a combination of the three. Jackson was a distinctive entertainer, for sure; I think it's safe to say that we've never seen anyone quite like him, nor are likely to do so in the future. It goes without saying that his fans should be ecstatic over "This Is It"; for the rest of us, it is a look at a fascinating if perhaps not quite understandable phenomenon. I'll leave it to the reader to decide whether to take a trip — a final trip — with that masked-and-gloved man. I don't suppose you will be bored; and, really, this is not the sort of thing some folks in the storyboard dept. could come up with.

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Blu-ray continues to take vintage films and reinvigorate them. We've seen this on a variety of early films, yes, but not on something so old and so brilliant as Buster Keaton's The General [Kino]. Here comes the fabled historic locomotive steaming down the track once more, and it is even grander than the last time around. Kino gave us a fine "Ultimate 2-Disc Edition" restoration of the 1926 film just two years ago, as it happens, outfitted with three complete musical scores and a handful of intelligent and interesting bonus features. All are repeated on the Blu-ray disc; those who bought the 2008 release won't find any new material. But Blu-ray enhances the film far beyond what you might think possible. (And far beyond anything that Mr. Keaton might have thought possible — or perhaps seen the need for.) For the viewer, this gives the film even more life than previously; there are no words and there are title cards interspersed, but after a few minutes you really don't feel like you are watching a silent movie. Rather, just one of the finest comedies ever, one of the finest adventure stories ever, and one of the most astonishing combination of special effects ever. (That last might be something of an exaggeration, but these special effects were filmed without any of the tricks of the special effects folk.) Blu-ray gives us the remarkable Buster Keaton and his remarkable "The General" in more splendor than thought possible; you can even see, literally so, the whites of their eyes. (Steven Suskin is author of the forthcoming updated and expanded Fourth Edition of "Show Tunes" as well as "The Sound of Broadway Music: A Book of Orchestrators and Orchestrations," "Second Act Trouble," and the "Opening Night on Broadway" books. He can be reached at Ssuskin@aol.com.)

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