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The Spike and Stew Show

The Spike and Stew Show (photo)

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As a singer-songwriter with rock, prog and punk roots, Stew (née Mark Stewart) has been on a fast track to widespread success. In any other situation, having recorded Entertainment Weekly‘s Album of the Year in both 2000 and 2002, or writing and performing a beloved song for “SpongeBob SquarePants” would be career highs. But Stew has since become a Tony Award-winning playwright, thanks to his cabaret-influenced musical “Passing Strange.” Originally developed (with his longtime collaborator Heidi Rodewald) through the Sundance Institute Theatre Lab and the Public Theater, the show is an autobiographical journey about a young black musician from a middle-class L.A. neighborhood who learns about art, love, sex, drugs and himself in late ’70s Amsterdam and Berlin.

Witty, incredibly moving, and inventively all over the map in its musical influences (a little gospel here, a little kraut rock there), the show was a monster hit, and attracted the attention of filmmaker and fan Spike Lee. Documenting two of the last summer 2008 performances, as well as a dress rehearsal, Lee’s “Passing Strange” brings Stew’s story and music to the big screen, as well as the little one: as just announced, the movie will kick off the new video-on-demand service “Sundance Selects.” I sat down with Stew and Spike Lee to talk about the transition from stage to screen, speaking to one’s younger self, and Spike’s peculiar practice before he became famous.

Before we even get to the film, I’d like to ask you, Stew, about the creative process in translating your story and music into your first musical.

Stew: Our director, Annie Dorsen, had one credo when working with Heidi [Rodewald] and I. She wanted us to stay as true to our roots as rock musicians as possible, instead of us trying to pretend we were Stephen Sondheim. She wanted to know what it was like for a rock band to make a piece of theater. She never tried to hand me books like “Playwriting 101,” or whatever. She really got out of the way, tried to theatricalize what we were doing naturally, and I think that was the genius of her directing. Sometimes directing is not, as Spike knows, telling somebody what to do. It’s letting someone do something, and framing it. She let us go crazy.

With those minimalistic sets and complex staging, it seems like it must’ve been logistically challenging to film this particular play.

Spike Lee: It wasn’t difficult compared to what they’d done already. Many creative people — Annie, Stew, Heidi, the band and the cast — had done a monumental piece of work. The way I looked at it, I had the easy job. I just had to not get in the way. We had 15 cameras and did three shows, so there were a lot of decisions [in both shooting and editing].

Did you have a game plan going into the project?

Spike Lee: Don’t fuck it up. That was really the motto. My nightmare was they’d say, “I saw it at the Public, I saw it on Broadway, but that shit Spike did was fucked up!”

There’s a potent line in the play: “Life’s a mistake that only art can correct.” Do you believe that, and if so, is there anything else besides art that can?

Stew: All artists inherently think that because that’s why they make art. If life was perfect, we wouldn’t bother making things. We would just luxuriate and enjoy things. There’s a need to add to this world. I was talking in an earlier interview today about religion. It’s the same thing. We need other things besides the status quo. Some people look to politics, some to religion, some to art. Some to all three. But we need something more. That’s something we live by without even thinking about it.

08202009_PassingStrange3.jpgAs a story of finding one’s identity, “Passing Strange” is largely about discovering this concept of “the real.” What is that to you these days? Is it something you think you’ve found?

Stew: Yeah, sure. It’s always a struggle because I still believe strongly in art as a motivation. But I also know that the time I spend with my daughter is beyond words. It’s completely necessary for me. It’s the reason I live in Berlin. A lot of people think I live there because it’s hip or a cool place for artists, and it’s cheap to live. It’s all those things, but I live in Berlin because of my daughter. I live four blocks away from her and my ex. We all have a great relationship, and for me, that’s very real.

When you’re a kid, you’re thinking “the real” is just doing your own thing, whatever that might be. When you get older, you start to realize “the real” is a whole bunch of things. It can be the experience of hanging out with family, being in the church of your choice, being in [any] place where you feel like you’re at harmony with life. When you’re younger, you have that hunger for newness, for individuality. I was talking to one critic, and he totally misunderstood. He thought “the real” was a specific thing you could put on the table. I was like, “No, man, this is a 20-year-old dude who’s just hungry for life.” One minute, he thinks that sex with this girl is “the real,” and the next minute, he thinks it’s making a performance art piece. It’s a carrot dangling in front of the horse’s nose. What is it? Maybe closer to the end of your life, you realize it’s love. It’s a child of ours, a wife or a boyfriend. To me, art and love are very much connected. That’s how I commune through the world, is through art. It’s a loving act for me.

Spike Lee: Would you say it’s love/hate?

Stew: Yeah. [laughs]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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