Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Starring:
John Cameron Mitchel, Michael Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin
Directed By :
John Cameron Mitchel
Grade
B+

Synopsis: A rock musical about a young man named Hedwig from East Berlin who undergoes a botched sex change operation in order to come to the U.S. and is left with only an "angry" inch. In the States, Hedwig is left doing whatever she can in order to survive, but strives to become a rock star. She cultivates a relationship with young rocker Tommy Gnosis (Pitt) and teaches him everything he knows, but is left in the dirt as his fame grows based off Hedwig's songs and crafted image. The movie begins with Hedwig following Gnosis on tour, playing nearby third-rate gigs and telling her story to anyone who'll listen.

Evaluation: How had I never heard of this? I consider myself one of the culturally hip. I know the new trends, and buck them, preferring to align myself loosely with the underground tragically (un)hip. I've got my ear to the ground. I even saw some off-Broadway shows when I was in NYC recently (catch 'Bare' if you get a chance.) So how had I never heard of this seeming cultural phenomenon until it vaguely snuck into my awareness as a cult DVD flick?

Well, in any case, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the new Rocky Horror Picture Show. I can picture them now holding midnight showings for all the downtrodden misunderstood individuals that this film has reached out to. At certain moments you wave your arms in the air, you sing along with the bouncing ball, you throw up your lighters, you chant, stomp, and dance around. Oh yes, I can see it coming. But this film actually surpasses Rocky Horror in that it's not all excess and attitude, there's actually a deep message and a touching spirituality to the film. Yes, it is as odd as the synopsis makes it sound. Yes, it is about gays and transsexuals and transvestites and assorted odd sexualities that will make homophobes run screaming. And yes, guys kiss each other. Still reading? Well, if you're big enough to be able to watch a GOOD story involving these elements and not sum the movie up with "that was gay", then you're in for a treat.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch started as an idea for a performance piece that friends John Cameron Mitchel and Stephen Trask wanted to do. Mitchel was on Broadway and Trask was in a punk band, and they wanted to combine their talents into something hip and relevant. Mitchel wrote the dialogue and Trask did the music, and they came up with the character of Hedwig, which has to be seen to be believed. For anyone who's ever met a drag queen, there's a certain royal glamour covering a bruised and vulnerable being that fits most of them. Hedwig captures this wonderfully and is instantly a hypnotic character that is both extreme and somehow imminently believable. Trask and Mitchel test drove their act at NYC drag shows before trying to turn it into a play. The transformation to a play required more of a narrative, and so the act was evolved a bit, and financial backers were secured…yadda, yadda, yadda: it didn't go over very well. Too punk rock for the playhouse crowd, too Broadway for the rockers. Well, Mitchel and company set up in the newly created Jane Street theater, over by the Hudson River where the drag queens and transvestites go for fun. They had another run at it, and a slow hit was made. Eventually drawing celebrity guests and contributing to making the theater famous, Hedwig… also eventually saw Mitchell pass on the role to accomplished actors ranging from Lion King alums to Ally Sheedy.

But when the time came to create the film, and another evolution was required, it was obvious Mitchel had to be in charge. On board as Hedwig, it was eventually decided that Mitchel would adapt the writing and directing for the screen as well, with Trask in charge of the wonderfully crafted songs and band. For my part, despite a distaste for musicals, I was very appreciative of this one. Songs don't just randomly break out; you're watching a performance, which unfolds basically as a narration of Hedwig's tragic life. The acting is fine and natural in that way that doesn't exude star power like Hollywood films, but simply exists naturally as do the best indie movies. Despite the oddness of the whole situation, it is somehow illustrated as imminently believable in the sense of all real-life absurdities. But the film has a sense of humor about itself as well, as is illustrated by Hedwig's own self-aware deprecation. As the play acquired 'Hed-heads', die-hard fans that came to repeat performances, so does the band acquire these fans in the film, and they mostly consist of queer little gothboys or unrepentant alt-girls. But all this is handled with the utmost care and reverence, being very self-aware, and at the same time open and honest.

So the film's writing and directing is odd but compliments the whole wonderfully. The main actor is wonderful in the role, and the supporting actors add to the experience. There's a subplot with Hedwig's guitarist/backup singer/lover Yitzhak (Shor) involving Hedwig's own sexual identity and quest for love that works subtly yet wonderfully between the backdrop of the musical numbers, and even mixed among them in little bits. Hedwig's agent (Martin) adds a lot of humor to the mix, albeit in a more two-dimensional character. Hedwig's other love interest, Tommy, is not exactly an Oscar-winning role, but is enacted by Pitt with that realistic believability that the story crafts so well.

The music is, of course, the crucial part of any musical. Some people that might like underground films or musicals may be turned off by this simply for not caring for the music. However, of all the musicals I've heard, I find this one probably the least obvious and the easiest to listen to. I didn't have that feeling like with Chicago, where I appreciated it but was just kind of waiting to get through the musical number. No, I actually enjoyed each performance in the film (which is all live vocals and the real band by the way). The music is reminiscent of classic rock with more than a little punk attitude thrown in. You may be stuck in the 'appreciating but not really liking it category'. Still, you can't deny the quality to the songs. While not necessarily being something I would buy at the music store, once heard, these songs are soulful and catchy. I watched the movie once and I have several of the songs stuck in my head; I walk around humming Origin of Love, my undisputed favorite. The music for Hedwig…has become quite popular, with the cast doing concerts with the likes of Joan Jett performing the songs. How many other musicals have crossed boundaries like that, with the original cast no less?

Who Will This Appeal To?: Only reason I'm not rating this film an 'A' is because I know some people will be turned off by the subject matter. Fact is, some people will have no interest in this film purely because it's a musical or a 'gay movie'. But if you've no objection to either, definitely hunt this movie down.

Final Verdict: An entertaining and surprisingly touching film that makes you think about the nature of love and sexuality, and may even give you a new appreciation of what it means to be human.

Details, details…: Oddly aping Marilyn Manson's rise to stardom involving visual excess and sexual androgyny, Tommy Gnosis does the same but with an eye on translating Christianity's message for the masses. Who would've thought the picture of fine-featured boyhood androgynous rock would be by Henry from Dawson's Creek (Michael Pitt)? But it works.

DVD: The DVD is pretty rockin' too, with crisp visual and multiple audio options, including commentary. Also includes trailers and cast info, deleted scenes, and a HUGE making of which does a great job of showing the progression of the Hedwig phenomenon from origin through film release. Also, there are multiple takes of six-year-old Hedwig punk rock dancing, which I think may be the funniest thing I've ever seen.

- - Jeff Light

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