Hedwig and the Angry Inch

     The movie musical has been moribund since the 1970s. Well, that’s not
entirely true; it was overtaken by Disney who in the late 1980s and early 90s
turned out several stunning examples of animated films that incorporated
musical numbers. Near the turn of the 21st Century, upstarts like Trey Parker
and Matt Stone further pushed the boundaries with
LONGER & UNCUT, but the live-action, break-into-song film in the tradition
FORTY-SECOND STREET and WEST SIDE STORY had practically gone the way
of the Edsel. With the start of a new decade and a new century, though, there
are signs of a renaissance. Australian director Baz Luhrmann presented the
excessive, fascinating, but flawed
MOULIN ROUGE!. Danish-born director
Lars von Trier made
DANCER IN THE DARK, a film that proved as problematic
as Luhrmann’s, but which was intriguing. Now comes
, actor-director-writer John Cameron Mitchell’s film version of his
Hit Off-Broadway musical. Not since Bob Fosse tackled and rethought
in 1972 has there been such an artistically successful stage-to-screen transfer.
If possible, Mitchell has improved upon his original, fleshing out characters only
referred to on stage.

     We are first introduced to the “internationally ignored” rock singer Hedwig
Schmidt (Mitchell), a transsexual from East Berlin, during one of the concerts
she is performing with her back-up band of Middle European musicians, at a
low-rent chain of seafood restaurants called Bilgewater’s. Hedwig, you see, is
shadowing the more successful Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), her former lover
who she claims has stolen all her material.

     Her between song patter gives the wig-wearing Hedwig a chance
to recount her story. She was born a biological male named Hansel and raised
in Communist East Germany. Her mother (Alberta Watson) regaled Hansel with
tales of the origin of love -- that at the dawn of time, the gods split people in
half and that we spend our lives searching for the missing part. When a
handsome black soldier (Maurice Dean Wint) seduces Hansel, the youngster
has a chance to flee to the West, but there’s a hitch. The soldier has to marry,
so Hansel must undergo a sex-change operation, which is botched and leaves
the ‘angry inch’. Now rechristened Hedwig, she settles in a Kansas trailer park,
watches her husband leave, and takes up with a young local Jesus freak,
Tommy. After Tommy also departs and achieves fame and fortune, Hedwig
goes to the press and her manager (Andrea Martin) arranges for the tour.
With money tight, a second husband Yitzak (Miriam Shor in a gender-bending
performance) who dreams of touring in
RENT, and tensions running high,
Hedwig grows increasingly isolated. A chance reunion with Tommy, though,
eventually leads to both tragedy and clarity.

     The plot description doesn’t really do the film justice. People I know
(myself included) avoided the stage show because the story did not sound
compelling or entertaining. In the theater, one of the major drawbacks was
that Stephen Trask’s lyrics were often garbled or drowned out, causing the
audience to miss a lot. Mitchell and company have compensated for that in
the film, so that the audience can appreciate the richness in his writing and
how each song comments on or drives the main story forward. Indeed, one of
the real joys of the movie is experiencing the song cycle, which draws on
eclectic sources, from out and out rock to country to Broadway ballads. Some
may overlook the importance of Trask’s contribution to the success of the movie,
but if it were not for his songs, the film would not work as well.

     Mitchell, though, rightfully deserves all the praise. As a first-time
director, he demonstrates a flair and inventiveness that creates the right tone
for the material. Neither camp nor straight drama, Hedwig is an absurdist satire,
and Mitchell pitches it at the right level. (He is enormously assisted by
production designer Therese DuPrez, costume designer Arianne Phillips, editor
Andrew Marcus and cinematographer Frank DeMarco.) While he does allow the
supporting players room to develop a bit (Shor, Pitt, Watson and Martin all
have an effective moment or two), Mitchell’s Hedwig is clearly the focus. As
such, the actor’s amazing transformation and believability as the character
carries the film. It’s a very brave take on a character that is not always likable,
but one who remains understandable. That is a tribute both to Mitchell’s
screenplay and to his talent as a performer. Without him (or as seen on stage,
without a performer of equal charm and talent),
wouldn’t amount to much. But this film version is an eye-popping romp that
manages to glide over the few minor rough spots and goes a long way
toward reinventing the movie musical for a new audience.

                                 Rating:                A-
                                 MPAA Rating:        R
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.