Hedwig & the Angry Inch
directed by John Cameron Mitchell
(Fine Line, 2001)

Reports on the demise of the Hollywood musical are premature. Recently, theater screens have been graced by the likes of O Brother, Where Art Thou and Moulin Rouge, these worthies now joined by Hedwig & the Angry Inch subtitling itself a "post-punk neo-glam rock musical."

Winning awards at the 2001 Berlin International Festival and at Sundance (Audience Favorite and Best Director), Hedwig's success can be credited to its director, writer and star John Cameron Mitchell. His hugely popular off-Broadway production triumphantly makes the transition from stage to big-screen. Mitchell, a very talented person, delivers an amazing performance, an appealing androgyne bringing to life the music and lyrics by Stephen Trask who also plays in the band.

The story deals with controversial, edgy subjects in a very enjoyable way, offering much food for thought about gender, sex roles and relationships. Hedwig, born Hansel in East Berlin in 1961 (the year the Wall went up), grows up passionate for American pop culture despite official and divorced-mother's disapproval. He undergoes a botched sex-change operation involving castration (resulting in the titular angry inch), in order to marry an African-American GI (Maurice Dean Wint) and escape to the U.S. Once here, settled in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig gets dumped by her spouse in favor of another androgynous boy.

Now on her own, Hedwig seeks fame and fortune pursuing her dream of making it in the pop music world. She soon meets and falls for Tommy (Michael Pitt), a handsome youth who shares the same enthusiasms for music, self-expression and song-writing. An incipient beautiful romance quickly sours when Tommy, discovering Hedwig's original gender, feels revulsion and leaves her -- adding insult to injury by stealing his ex-lover's material and using it to become a successful solo rock star. We see Hedwig and her group trailing Tommy and his tour in the hope that a lawsuit or something can somehow resolve the problem. While Tommy plays the big venues, the Hedwig & the Angry Inch band gets gigs in a chain of "el sleazo" seafood restaurants called Bilgewater's.

The movie offers nearly non-stop music throughout (and some great sight gags, campy bits and hip musical jokes), while Hedwig & Co. perform in one dive after another interspersed with flashbacks (which also include some appealing, quirky animations by Emily Hubley) explaining the back story (summarized above). In between the performance sequences, Hedwig also gets a chance to make very witty and trenchant commentaries about the pop scene. These interludes and the musical numbers (sometimes also illustrated by the animations) combine effectively to communicate the film's basic themes: the universal yearning to love and be loved, to feel at peace with the divided self and to be free to experiment with gender and sexuality on an emerging frontier where boys can be girls and girls can be boys with the freedom to couple however he or she chooses.

Hedwig & the Angry Inch -- with its dazzling, glitzy, wild and crazy costumes, wigs and make-up, with its wit, genuine emotion, interesting structure and pulse-pounding music -- really rocks! In addition to Mitchell's incredible energy, charisma, lovely contralto-sounding voice and general outrageousness, much cross-dressing, gender-bending playfulness happens in this movie, most notably in the person of Hedwig's post-Tommy lover and also a band member Yitzhak, played by a woman (Miriam Shor) sporting a full beard and mustache. With intelligent lyrics and foot-stomping, hard-driving rhythms, the excellent music delights, performed by the top-notch band whose talents (especially that of lyricist/composer Stephen Trask), ably complement the star's. If the very ending seems a bit vague and in need of greater exposition, that flaw hardly detracts from this colorful, campy film with its intelligent, refreshingly subversive, yet appealing subtexts that should attract a large audience, even those who are not rabid fans of the rock scene.

[ by Amy Harlib ]
Rambles: 3 November 2001

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