Passing Strange: See it on DVD!

It’s not often I give a Netflix movie a 5-star rating, or watch anything a second time just after I viewed it. Yet there I was, putting the PASSING STRANGE dvd back in the DVR player, and bopping my head to the opening notes that kick off this amazing piece of theater.

If you haven’t heard of it before — and many did not because it ran on Broadway for just six months — it’s a musical about a young black man’s search for identity through music. Not the most original premise. But the way it’s told through song and witty repartee makes it one of the most memorable things I’ve seen in a long, long time. Spike Lee does a terrific job of filming and editing the performances so that you feel like you’re in the front row… heck, you can almost taste the sweat dripping off the actors.

Since this blog is ostensibly related to career matters and occupational choices, I’ll tell you why it moved me so much: I’ve been thinking about throwing in the towel on screenwriting after 15 years of serious effort and little to show for it. “Close” don’t count. Neither do options, or winning screenwriting contests. If your scripts aren’t being made, it’s as if you don’t exist (or so I thought)… I look back at my life and wonder what if I had focused on a career in advertising, journalism or any kind of “real” job. At least I would have made more money. But I’m not sure I could be happy in that role because I was always searching for something more…

And that’s what PASSING STRANGE is about. Stew, the author of the play and singing narrator, calls it “the Real.” His young alter ego on stage, referred to as Youth, leaves his mother and life in L.A. to find the Real in Europe. It’s funny and sad because as Stew later notes, the Real is an illusion — a “construct” that ironically can only be made real through art.

That’s what writers, musicians, and artists are all looking for: to create a moment or piece of work that transcends ourselves and speaks to a larger truth. We want to make our mark for eternity. But at the same time, as Stew says in his play, artists want to remain children at heart. He has a great line later on about how weird it is that so many of us “spend our entire adult lives acting on the decisions of a teenager.” Ain’t that the truth.

I guess that’s why I cried at the end. Stew stayed true to himself to become the man on the stage singing about his life, laughing about his foibles and stoned-out epiphanies, a bit remorseful he chose music over love when it was offered… but in the end, music is love to him. It’s the thing that connects him to the world and everyone in it.

It inspired me to go back to a screenplay I wrote in 1994 that was my first optioned script — a bizarre comedy about an aging punk rocker loser who becomes poster boy for the ultimate lifestyle makeover company that’s actually a front for a Disney-esque corporation with plans to brainwash the masses into being mindless consumers of its products. The title was “I Gotta Be Me!”

After watching PASSING STRANGE, I realized what I have to do is go back to that story and rewrite it as a punk rock musical. Maybe it’ll never sell, but I still have something to say. Thanks, Stew, for reminding me I have my own song to sing, whether anyone wants to hear it or not. And if they don’t, it’s all right…

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For those who are curious, here’s the I GOTTA BE ME script that was optioned by Michael Miner, co-writer of the original ROBOCOP. His significant other, Marie Cantin, was also attached as a producer. It remains unproduced, just waiting to be re-imagined… as a musical, perhaps.

I Gotta Be Me (7.08)

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