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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 Edward Johnson-Ott
3 stars out of 4

Had "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" came out in the '70s, right after David Bowie's "Ziggy Stardust," it likely would now be regarded as one of the most popular rock musicals of all time. Released in the 500 channel, sensory overload world of 2001, however, the big screen adaptation of the acclaimed off-Broadway musical must do battle with countless other productions clamoring for attention.

I almost missed it. Every August, the major studios try to squeeze the last few dollars out of summer moviegoers by dumping all of their shakier offerings on the marketplace at once. I was so busy trying to keep up with national releases like "Summer Catch" and "Bubble Boy" that I passed over any independent film that looked like it would only have a short local run. But an e-mail from a reader asking why I hadn't reviewed the movie prompted me to make a late evening trip to the theater.

Thank goodness for readers like him.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is a gender-bending glam-rock spectacular packed with great songs. Stylistically, the hook-laden tunes are reminiscent of Bowie, "Bat Out of Hell" era Meatloaf and "The Rocky Horror Show," without ever seeming like imitations. As with "Tommy," "Hedwig" tells a story of isolation, pain and defiance, but without the bloated feel of that beloved, but overrated rock opera. Writer-director-star John Cameron Mitchell and composer-lyricist Stephen Trask have cooked up a real winner.

Mitchell stars as Hedwig, a singer from East Berlin touring a chain of U.S. coffee shops with her pan-Slavic band, the Angry Inch. While the patrons of the run-down restaurants look on in shock, and sometimes horror, Hedwig boldly tells the sad story of her life in song.

She was once a boy named Hansel (Ben Mayer-Goodman), living with his mother (Alberta Watson) and listening to rock and roll on American Armed Forces Radio. Life is an exercise in duality for Hansel. A wall splits his hometown into two parts. Mother describes love as the emotion that comes when you find your other half.

As Hansel grows up, the duality becomes more pronounced. After initially mistaking him for a girl, a GI from the States (Maurice Dean Wint) falls in love with Hansel and wants to marry him. Alas, Hansel will never pass the mandatory physical. Mother helpfully suggests a sex change, but the operation goes bad, hence the references to "the angry inch" (yes, I know this part is squirm-inducing, but stick with me - it's worth it).

Several years later, Mr. Right is long gone and Hansel becomes Hedwig, decked out in a Farrah Fawcett-style wig and fronting a band made up of Korean women. Hedwig finds a new love in Tommy (Michael Pitt), a beatific lad with a unique take on Christianity. But Tommy does Hedwig wrong, stealing her songs and becoming a superstar.

Cut to the present. Tommy Gnosis' stadium tour is thriving and Hedwig is suing him. Despite warnings from her manager (Andrea Martin) that she could easily be labeled a stalker, Hegwig and her new band, the Angry Inch, continue their coffee shop tour, shadowing the thief by playing whatever city he is in.

If this sounds like a bizarre premise for a rock musical, take a few seconds and consider the plotlines of "Tommy" and "Rocky Horror."

As Hedwig, John Cameron Mitchell does a magnificent job taking a character that could have simply been a caricature or an icon and turning her into a compelling human being. Mitchell has world-class style and vocal chords to match. Even though the backstory is unusually strong, Mitchell never forgets that the production is first and foremost a rock musical. Everything is propelled by one terrific song after another and, trust me, these are full-fledged rock songs, not the over-processed fluff that passes for rock in most musicals.

While Mitchell remains in the center of the stage throughout the film, there is much of interest on the sidelines. Miriam Shor does fine work as Yitzhak, Hedwig's lover and bandmate, conveying a great deal through expressions alone. Decked out in a bandanna and a surprisingly convincing beard, she makes a mighty attractive man. As always, "SCTV" veteran Andrea Martin is a welcome presence onscreen and Michael Pitt is beguiling as Tommy, the angelic-appearing little rat. Artist Emily Hubley adds to the magic with a string of dandy animated sequences that charm the eye while underlining the central themes of the musical.

"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" surrounds a weird, funny and touching story with a knockout series of songs performed by an exceptional cast. True originals do not come along very often don't let this slip out of town without seeing it.

Copyright 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott

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