Film

Tribeca Film Festival highlight: In The Loop

Tribeca Film Festival highlight: In The Loop

By Larry Getlen

In The Loop,” a comedy from the U.K. about the American and British governments trying to manipulate a war in the Middle East, is somewhat of a political satire, but more just a joyfully raucous comedy about the use of intimidation. While James Gandolfini gives a spirited and cutting performance as a U.S. general trying to help avert the war, the movie’s feral and foul-mouthed scene stealer is British actor Peter Capaldi, who plays Malcolm Tucker, the top mouthpiece and strategist for the British prime minister.

When a meek British diplomat publicly states that “war is unforeseeable” — a meaningless phrase if ever there was one — the race is on to manipulate his words to either avert or create a catastrophe. Tucker, leading the charge for the latter, is a nuclear bomb in a suit, exploding F-bombs and C-bombs in the sort of brilliantly-styled manner that would make David Mamet weep with pride. Also featuring Steve Coogan as a man trying to squeeze competence from a bureaucracy, Mimi Kennedy as a set-upon politico hoping to stop the war-bound steamroller, and Anna Chlumsky — yes, she’s an adult now — as her assistant, “In The Loop” hits all the right notes in hilariously attacking the rituals of diplomacy.

“In The Loop” screens at the fest on Monday, April 27; Tuesday, April 28; Friday, May 1; and Saturday, May 2. Go to Tribeca Film Festival for more information.

Larry Getlen is the Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops magazine and cityscoopsny.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/larrygetlen.


Posted on 25 Apr 2009 at 8:44pm
Tribeca Film Festival preview: Spike Lee's

Tribeca Film Festival preview: Spike Lee’s “Passing Strange”

By Larry Getlen

On Saturday, May 2, at the Director’s Guild Theater, the Tribeca Film Festival and American Express will present the New York debut of Spike Lee’s “Passing Strange,” the filmed version of the Tony-Award winning musical. Lee’s film – much like his “The Original Kings of Comedy” and “Kobe Doin’ Work,” the latter of which also plays at the fest – seeks to continue his reinvention of the live action concert/event/sports film, injecting a long staid format with new juice thanks to judicious use of cameras (for “Passing Strange,” he filmed three shows using 14 hi-def cameras) and a more filmic approach to editing. But more to the point, he couldn’t have picked a better show to film. “Passing Strange” was a groundbreaking work that not only injected a fresh, youthful energy onto the Broadway stage, but brought authentic “rock” to the concept of the rock musical – and, we’re happy to say, it was also a show that City Scoops championed from the beginning. On the occasion of the film’s New York premiere, we dipped into the recent City Scoops archives to re-present our February 2008 cover story on the show. Enjoy.

Strange and Beautiful

A breathtaking new rock musical called “Passing Strange” brings the passion of music, life and art to the Broadway stage

By Larry Getlen

The rock musical Passing Strange opens with a seductive groove – bass-driven, sixties-tinged funk with keyboard and guitar floating over it like cotton-candied fog. Seconds after the tune’s slinky ignition, a large African-American man with perfectly-round specs sings from center stage.

“Now you don’t know me and I don’t know you/So let’s cut to the chase. My name is Stew.”

Within the next two minutes, Stew informs the audience via song that he’s the narrator; asks if the band can crash on their couch; and says that “if you’re ever not sure what I’m on about/Just ask the song.”

The show’s actors then take charge and we’re off on the thrilling emotional journey of a boy known only as Youth, with the next two-and-a-half hours presenting a musical tour de force that might just be the best thing to hit Broadway since a certain other rock musical redefined the genre with its own look at sexual teenage angst.

“Passing Strange” ran for two months at The Public Theater last year and received universal raves, with The New York Times stating that the show “introduces an exciting new voice to contemporary musical theater,” and The New Yorker proclaiming that not since the work of Stephen Sondheim and Tony Kushner “have we had such a finely crafted, ethnic-minded American musical.” The theater community took note, and after previews that start on February 8, Passing Strange officially opens on Broadway, at the Belasco Theater, on February 28.

To describe all the reasons “Passing Strange” is both wonderful and unique could fill this magazine, but it all starts with the music. Stew and his musical partner, Heidi Rodewald, are master songwriters in multiple genres, and Stew’s lyrics blend emotion and wit in blazingly original fashion. Then there’s the show’s unusual structure, with the band sitting in descending pods on four sides of the squared stage with Stew at the center, serving as our all-knowing master of ceremonies. He narrates the action; breaks into song; executes searing, Hendrix-style guitar solos; and even bends time and space altogether to serve as the wise and wistful sage to his fictional representation, Youth, played by Broadway veteran Daniel Breaker. It’s a structure that in so many hands could have failed horribly, and yet this talented crew turns it into a musical miracle.

Had “Spring Awakening” not already done so last year, it’s very likely that “Passing Strange” would be seen by the theatrical community as poised to revolutionize the rock musical. Yet in certain ways, “Passing Strange” is considerably more “rock” than its highly-esteemed predecessor. (And, in this writer’s opinion, is also a stronger, more consistent and more personally-affecting show, with a much more satisfying denouement than last year’s Tony Awards champion.)

One reason for this is that “Passing Strange” is, as indicated in Stew’s early line about asking the song, often about the love of music. Through the exquisite beauty of “Arlington Hill,” for example, one of the show’s main early themes, Youth is introduced to the concept of a life beyond the limitations of home, and Stew’s lyrical and melodic poetry places the audience at the heart of his emotional evolution, calling that moment in his life “…like sitting next to a soulfully-played cello,” and speaking of how a companion’s words “wash over him like a Bach fugue” and how the music “goes right over your head, and straight into that part of you which is most beautiful.”

But another possible reason for this difference is that while the musical creator of Spring Awakening, Duncan Sheik, was a theater geek at heart who had performed in productions since the sixth grade, Stew, 46, and Rodewald, 48, are completely creatures of the rock world, with decades of experience traveling from club to club in crappy vans, and absolutely no foundation in the theater. Stew’s line in the play where he asks the audience if the band could crash on their couch – that actually happened during their rock life on more than one occasion.

“That’s rock and roll,” says Stew, lunching with City Scoops – along with Rodewald and the show’s publicist – on the noisy second floor balcony at Angus McIndoe’s on West 44th Street. “I did my Europe thing in my twenties and early thirties, but we were in our mid-to-late thirties when we did the rock and roll thing. A lot of people run away to join the circus when they’re twenty and then come home. We ran away to join the circus any chance we got. We’d be on the road with people ten years younger than us, and they’d be like, ‘I’m tired. I’m cold. When are we gonna get to the hotel?’” “We just have it in common that we were gonna do anything, just get in a van and drive and play,” says Rodewald, who’s been writing and performing with Stew since the late nineties when, after hearing his L.A. band The Negro Problem, she persuaded every mutual friend they had to convince him to let her join. “Our thing was, we don’t know if we’re gonna make enough money to survive, but let’s go.”

Renamed STEW, their independently released albums began gaining both die-hard fans and effusive critical acclaim. Entertainment Weekly put two of their releases in its album-of-the-year lists; Stew wrote a song for the popular kid’s show “SpongeBob SquarePants” (“Gary’s Song,” from a 2005 episode); and a feverish New York following developed from regular gigs at Joe’s Pub.

“I bump into people on the street and they’re just so excited ,” says Stew, who keeps a “flat” in Berlin, where he has a 15-year-old daughter, but currently lives in walking distance to Times Square. “It’s really palpable. The excitement is more than anything we’ve experienced in the rock world, where people tend to be, ‘yeah – cool.’ No. People are excited about it. They feel like they own a piece of that play that they saw downtown.”

The enthusiasm for Stew and Rodewald’s creativity has been well shared. During the development of “Passing Strange,” the play was accepted two years in a row to be part of the prestigious Sundance Theater Laboratory – an impressive feat for the pair on its own, but one made more so by the rare distinction of having a completely separate screenplay of theirs called “We Can See Today” simultaneously accepted to the Sundance Screenwriter’s and Director’s Labs.

Amazingly, all of this came about by accident. In the earlier days of their Joe’s Pub run, Stew wrote a long E-Mail to the Pub’s booker about various topics, and casually mentioned that the band was working on a musical – which, it turned out, was nothing more than Stew “talking shit.” To his frightening surprise, the booker called him on it. “He comes back – ‘A musical? Maybe we should talk about it, because The Public Theater is right next door, blah blah, blah,’” says Stew. “And suddenly we’re like, ‘shit. We actually have to do something now.’”

The Public paired them with Annie Dorsen, a young downtown director who turned out to be Stew and Rodewald’s perfect collaborator. “Annie believed in us as artists,” says Stew. “It wasn’t like, ‘I have to teach you how to make theater because you’re in another genre,’ but more like, ‘you guys have been doing this for twenty-five years in front of harder, more difficult audiences than any of these actors have ever seen.’ Trying to get someone’s attention at 11:30 at a rock club, you learn a few things. So she respected our history and what we had been though, and wanted to bring that into the theater, rather then teach us to be Sondheim.”

The pair began meeting with Dorsen at The Public, where Stew brought “papers, things I’d written, scraps of things, songs, and monologues.” The first decision the team had to make was what the play would be, and the choice of making it a deeply personal (albeit fictionalized) exploration of Stew’s peripatetic youth came, oddly, from political considerations. “George W. Bush is either to blame or to thank for the existence of ‘Passing Strange,’” says Stew. “We were looking for a subject, and when I found out that Bush had never traveled to Europe before he became president, that was astonishing to me, because the whole idea of travel and learning about different cultures was a huge part of my upbringing.” While they had no desire to write an overtly political work, Stew took this as his cue to write a play about “discovery, and being curious about life,” and “looking at life as a laboratory, an experiment.”

Once development was underway, their rock and roll background gave The Public Theater low expectations, a circumstance that worked to the team’s advantage. “ I don’t think anyone thought for a second that it would go this far,” says Stew. “Nobody expected this rock band and this young, 30-year-old, avant-gardey director…I do not think they thought we’d have the tenacity or the drive, or even the ability.” “And it worked in our favor,” says Rodewald, “because if they thought it was gonna go this far, they would have thought, oh, a Broadway director. They wouldn’t have gotten downtown Annie Dorsen.”

Which is not to say that the intersection of theater and rock didn’t see some collisions. “We had one of our keyboard players coming from L.A.,” says Rodewald. “He’s part of the band. We’ve played with him for ten years. And they said, ‘oh, we’ll just call somebody here in New York. It’ll save money.’ Well, that’s not what this is. We’re not pretending we’re a band – we’re an actual band. You can’t fake that. So that’s something we had to tell them repeatedly.” Another area of misunderstanding was the way the “Passing Strange” team embedded music into the very structure of the tale, as Stew alludes to at the show’s outset. “The thing about this play which I think is very different than any rock musical is that sometimes we use the song – and I don’t mean the lyric, I mean the music itself – to tell how the story has moved forward,” says Stew. “At the beginning of the play, when I say, ‘if you’re ever not sure what I’m on about/just ask the song,’ that means that if you tune into the way the music sounds, you will understand what’s going on, because that’s how we communicate. We communicate with music, and sometimes we had to explain that – that with this play, sometimes just the sound of the music is going to be the story.”

Stew and Rodewald felt that this attitude about music is very much a product of their rock sensibility, differentiating them even from the likes of “Spring Awakening,” which often used lyrics to further its story emotionally instead of contextually (the latter of which is standard for musicals). “Producers will always ask for more glue, more connective material between what is happening on stage and what is happening in the audience’s consciousness in terms of understanding, so that this imaginary audience member will feel comfortable that he or she understands everything that’s going on,” says Stew. “We feel like, we wanna seduce these people with music – we wanna do what rock and roll does.” A discussion of Led Zeppelin ensues, where it’s remarked that the band’s legendary status came not just in spite of, but often with the aid of, lyrics that were oblique at best. “What Led Zeppelin did, we wanna do,” says Stew. “You have no idea what Robert Plant’s going on about in his lyrics. I’ve never cared. It’s never bothered me, and it’s clearly never bothered a whole bunch of people. So why, when we’re sitting in this theater, does it suddenly have to be spelled out for them? It’s a central experience.” “We’re trying to make it so you can hear every word, because Stew happens to write amazing lyrics,” says Rodewald. “But if you don’t, it still works. The vibe is there.”

Another challenge for Stew in developing the tale was finding the balance between factual and emotional truth. The character of Youth was originally called Young Stew, but the prospect of confronting that level of personal honesty night after night came to seem unbearable. As one director Stew had worked with in the past put it to him, “you’re not gonna be able to do this. It’s gonna be like an emotional rape for you every night.” “Writing this, there were moments when I just had to fess up,” says Stew.

But the truth Stew confronts in both text and music helps makes “Passing Strange” a show of undeniable power and joy, and one that will leave Broadway audiences feeling that 2008 was yet another redefining year for the rock musical. Because whatever challenges such internal examination presents to this veteran master songwriter, it is always the thing itself – the show, the music, the song – that comes first. “To get to the truth of it, you have to say some things about yourself that aren’t particularly nice,” notes Stew. “But even if it was kind of weird and painful for me, it works dramatically because there’s a payoff to being truthful; that I’m gonna stand here and tell you something truthful about my life – even if it hurts – and maybe you’ll find something in that.”

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Larry Getlen is the Editor-in-Chief of City Scoops magazine and cityscoopsny.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/larrygetlen.

Posted on 20 Apr 2009 at 2:12pm