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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

movie reviewmovie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Starring: John Cameron Mitchell, Andrea Martin
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Rated: R
RunTime: 91 Minutes
Release Date: August 2001
Genres: Comedy, Gay/Lesbian, Music

*Also starring: Miriam Shor, Sook-Yin Lee, Ben Mayer-Goodman, Alberta Watson, Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask

Review by Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

In Steven Spielberg's monumental fairy tale "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence," a lonely and unhappy robot named David is able to give love to his parents but his affection is not reciprocated. In that touching story, we in the audience ignore the fact that David is an android, as Spielberg means us to do, and root for him to get that metaphoric kiss from the princess--and become a real human being. The idea that one cannot be whole without love is pretty much part of the American culture, but John Cameron Mitchell subverts the notion that the love of another is the alpha and omega of human existence with his canny film taken from the off-Broadway hit by the same name, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." Like Woody Allen, Mitchell's role as writer, actor and star in his own movie puts just about the entire burden of success on his shoulders, and the hugely talented man comes across with a poignant, funny, production featuring his tour de force performance as the title character. As a musical in which the songs regularly advance the plot, "Hedwig" is as different from "The Sound of Music" as Bach's "Passacaglia and Fugue" is from Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock." The key word is "different," and therein lies much of its appeal. Saturated as we here in New York are with Broadway revivals of dated works like "Annie Get Your Gun," "Kiss Me Kate," and "42nd Street, we should greet this transsexual named Hedwig with the open arms that she herself longs for during most of the story's 91 minutes, a refreshing blend of Stephen Trask's stirring and meaningful rock music, Frank G. DeMarco's pastel cinematography, Emily Hubley's imaginative animation, and a production design by Therese De Prez that appropriately expands the play well beyond the stage.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch," which is the remarkable John Cameron Mitchell's film debut as a director, premiered at the recent Sundance Festival and should attract quite a bit of enthusiasm from the critics as well when it opens, presumably on a limited number of screens. Told with an abundance of flashbacks, the yarn opens with a rousing song belted out by Mitchell, after which we flash back to his more youthful days as a child in Berlin with the name of Hansel (Ben Mayer-Goodman). Though Hansel watches his mother slapping and pounding her man and driving him from their East Berlin digs, he absorbs a lesson from his mom (Albert Watson) that life is worthwhile only when you find your other half--poor advice that informs the lad's thinking when he's not bopping to the sounds of rock on American Forces Radio. Encouraged to marry an American soldier (Maurice Dean Wint) to get out of communist East Berlin, he must first get a physical--which requires him to get a primitive sex change operation which is botched: the doctor took away five inches below the belt, leaving one inch behind.

Mitchell takes us on a dismal tour of Hedwig's rock band which the singer, donning various copious wigs, takes to the most dismal and sparsely inhabited clubs and coffee houses in Miami Beach, Kansas and the like, at one point recruiting a small group of Korean women to play electric guitar. At one point he falls in love with a cherubic Jesus freak, Tommy (Michael Pitt), who reacts strongly upon finally touching the eponymous angry inch. Hedwig will see himself not only betrayed by the no-longer- innocent young man but virtually deserted by his lead backup singer, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor--who looks every bit a man).

If "A.I." is the exploration of unrequited love, then "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is an inquiry into the meaning of wholeness. Are we as individuals spending too much time preening and primping and marketing ourselves to others, as though their affection for us is all that we require? Should we not look more deeply into our own selves for what we feel we we're missing?

What puts "Hedwig" over the top is the fortunate marriage of music and motif, personality and panache. Mitchell is astounding in the role of a man whose identity as a transsexual is almost incidental to his search for completion. He tugs at our heartstrings, he makes us laugh, he forces us to care far more than the pathetic folks in the audience during his character's early career as a songwriter and interpreter. He is backed up by a technical team that meshes animation, music and design, giving the picture the very completion that Hedwig himself so earnestly seeks.

Copyright 2001 Harvey Karten

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