Movie Review: Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Most modern-day drag queens don't rock. They're more likely to be seen grooving to disco or lip-synching to ABBA or just generally camping it up.
But the title character of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" isn't your typical drag queen. Having survived a botched sex-change operation (which left the "one-inch mound of flesh" that explains the rest of the title), married and been abandoned by an American G.I., moved from East Berlin to a Kansas trailer park and formed a rock band that tours tacky seafood restaurants, Hedwig can rest assured that he/she can't be easily pigeonholed.
Defying categories is much of the point of John Cameron Mitchell's rock musical, which he wrote, directed and stars in after previously bringing "Hedwig" to life in a hit off-Broadway show.
As the rousing opening song "Tear Me Down" informs us, Hedwig is like the Berlin Wall, representing the divide between "man and woman" as well as "East and West" and "slavery and freedom." Hedwig also is in constant search of her other half, because, as we learn from "The Origin of Love" (with due respect to Plato), people used to be four-armed, four-legged creatures until Zeus' lightning bolts split everyone in two.
As for that "angry inch," the pre-Hedwig fellow named Hansel agrees to the surgery on the advice of fiance Luther, who philosophizes, "To walk away, one must leave something behind."
That's a lot of symbolic heft for a musical to carry, particularly one often likened to "The Rocky Horror Show." Aside from cult appeal, the comparison seems to stem mostly from the music; both shows are steeped in '70s glam rock with an extra infusion of the dramatic. But "Hedwig" is aiming to be deeper emotionally and more provocative in its sexual-identity explorations than that campy cult hit, and the feelings here come through loud, if not always clear.
To adapt "Hedwig" for the screen, Mitchell had to open up what essentially was a tour de force nightclub act in which the actor told Hedwig's story to the audience in narrative and song. On stage Mitchell not only was the flamboyant, Farrah-wigged singer, but he also slipped into the voices of other key characters, such as Luther and, most important, Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig's young protégé and lover who steals her songs and becomes a rock star.
Movies being a more literal medium, other actors have been cast in the other roles, which helps and hurts. Seeing Hedwig actually interacting with people outside of her band is a good thing, but without a single performer embodying both Hedwig and Tommy, you lose an apt symbol of how two people become one.
The greater loss in translation, though, is the dilution of the relationship between Hedwig and the audience. Instead of re-creating one show, Mitchell has launched Hedwig and her band on a tour of divey eateries called Bilgewaters; the idea is they're shadowing Tommy's stadium tour from city to city so Hedwig can draw attention to his ripoffs.
The problem is that the patrons of the various Bilgewaters tend to be perplexed by or indifferent to Hedwig as she makes randy wisecracks, belts tunes from behind a salad bar or steps up onto a booth, flaps her skirt tassels back and forth over an old man's face and announces, "It's a car wash, ladies and gentlemen!" In the live show, audiences could laugh and bob to the beat without having to filter out the squares' reactions.
Mitchell's other strategies are more successful. He intersperses primitive but effective animation in the performance of "The Origin of Love," includes a bouncing-ball-sing-along for Hedwig's sing-alongable transformation tune "Wig in a Box" and chooses the oddly evocative setting of a Laundromat for the lump-in-throat ballad "Wicked Little Town," on which Hedwig is backed by a band of Korean army wives.
The scarcity of quality movie musicals has been much bemoaned, yet Steven Trask's consistently melodic music and imagery-rich lyrics for "Hedwig" work exactly as they're supposed to: illuminating the characters and connecting with the audience in a far more visceral way than straight-ahead storytelling could. In truth, many of the dramatic elements here are muddled, particularly as the Hedwig-Tommy storyline grows more prominent and serious toward the end, yet the music delivers the emotions that the drama can't.
And it's doubtful that anyone could deliver them better than Mitchell, whose voice rings like I mean this in a good way, really a cross between Meat Loaf and Julian Lennon. His Hansel may be small-boned and soft-featured in an androgynous way, but his Hedwig is a force of nature, burned out and jaded yet brimming with compassion and bursting with energy.
Finding one's true self in a world of blurred sexuality can be vexing, the movie is saying, but through Hedwig you see the power of transformation and appreciate that life, after all, doesn't have to be a drag.
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch"
Written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell; photographed by Frank G. DeMarco; edited by Andrew Marcus; production designed by Therese DePrez; music by Stephen Trask; produced by Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler. A Fine Line Features release; opens Friday, Aug. 3. Running time: 1:31. MPAA rating: R (sexual content and language).
Hedwig John Cameron Mitchell
Yitzhak Miriam Shor
Phyllis Stein Andrea Martin
Skszp Stephen Trask
Jacek Theodore Liscinski
Krzysztof Rob Campbell