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
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