The timing always was off for Spike Lee and the Sundance Film Festival, which had never managed to land a movie from the maverick who has been at the vanguard of independent cinema for nearly 25 years.

So it's appropriate the film finally bringing Lee to the top indie showcase has its roots in the Sundance Institute's theatre lab, where the Tony Award-winning rock musical "Passing Strange" was developed.

Lee's Sundance premiere came Friday with his dazzling take on "Passing Strange," crafted from the musical's final Broadway performances.

The director behind such films as "Do the Right Thing," "Malcolm X" and "Inside Man" has debuted films at Cannes, Venice and other festivals, but he and Sundance previously had been out of sync.

"It's because of where the schedule is, where the festival is in the schedule. January never works out for me when I shoot," Lee, 51, said in an interview. "I've never had something that's been available in January."

"Passing Strange" is the semi-autobiographical creation of musician Stew, who developed the project with musical partner Heidi Rodewald and Annie Dorsen, director of the stage play.

With Stew as combination narrator, band leader, stage manager and puppeteer for the characters, the film traces the odyssey of a young black man called Youth (Daniel Breaker), who breaks with his mother's down-home adherence to church and family and seeks to reinvent himself overseas.

He progresses from pot-smoking choir rebel and acid-tripping punk rocker in his home town of Los Angeles to free-spirited bohemian in Amsterdam and finally to cultural icon in Berlin, where he finds musical success by "passing as ghetto," exploiting a south-central L.A. background he never really experienced.

Lee first saw "Passing Strange" when it was playing off-Broadway. He went back to see it again several times on Broadway, where it won Stew the Tony for best book of a musical last year.

"I was knocked out. It was great," Lee said. "I knew nothing about Stew and Heidi. It was just 'Hey, there's this show. Check it out.' I was amazed by it."

Approached by one of the play's producers to do a film version, Lee thought about shooting it as a "movie movie," a full cinematic adaptation. He ultimately wound up doing it as a filmed play, keeping the staging and minimalist set design intact.

Lee shot the last three Broadway performances in front of live crowds, then gathered the cast and musicians again the next day to film the entire play again without an audience so he could put the camera on stage for close-ups, dolly shots and other camera coverage.

The film was edited together from all four performances. Along with Stew, Rodewald and Breaker, the cast includes Eisa Davis as Youth's mother and De'Adre Aziza, Colman Domingo, Chad Goodridge and Rebecca Naomi Jones in multiple roles.

Even with a career that includes Academy Award nominations for original screenplay ("Do the Right Thing") and documentary ("4 Little Girls"), Lee was like many other Sundance novices, thrilled that he had a chance to meet festival overseer Robert Redford and hoping potential buyers like his film.

"We're like everybody else who's brought a film here at Sundance, trying to get a distribution deal," Lee said. "So we'll see what happens."

Lee thinks "Passing Strange" could have a long shelf life on the big screen.

"I think it's going to be a cult film. I grew up remembering the midnight shows of 'Rocky Horror,' " Lee said. "I could definitely see this playing midnight shows for years."

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