|Hedwig and the Angry Inch|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 11 December 2001|
"Hedwig and the Angry Inch" is one of those movies with an essence that is especially hard to pin down in a review. This isn’t because "Hedwig" is amorphous or lacking in incident, but rather because a description of the story and character details tends to seem at odds with the actual tone. There are comparisons to be drawn with other works – "Hedwig" has plenty of familiar elements – but ultimately, this project is so singular that any parallels cited are likely to be misleading.
Director/writer/star John Cameron Mitchell originally crafted "Hedwig" with lyricist composer Stephen Trask as a stage production. Watching the film version, it’s a little hard to imagine what the theatrical rendition was like, especially with the warmth of Emily Hubley’s whimsical, affecting drawings bridging mythic moments in the story and Cameron’s inspired use of physical environment. When we meet Hedwig (Mitchell), s/he is performing her/his heart out, backed by a rock band, for an audience in a diner. Hedwig, self-described as an "internationally ignored song stylist," has had most of her act stolen by the far more famous Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt). Via songs, musings and flashbacks, Hedwig recounts the adventures that led her/him to where s/he is now. Born to a mother (Alberta Watson) who dragged him into East Germany at a time when nearly everyone else was trying to go west, little Hansel (Ben Mayer-Goodman) grows up adoring rock and pop … and men. Attracting the attention of a lascivious U.S. Army officer, Hansel undergoes a sex change operation in order to get married, but the surgery is botched and Hedwig is left with an "angry inch." Hedwig makes it to America, is dumped by the spouse and then fatefully meets Tommy.
Mitchell is spellbinding and versatile, hitting a wide variety of notes on both the assertive/vulnerability front and the gender identity scales. He receives solid back-up from Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s put-upon, reasonably loyal husband Yitzhak and Pitt as the callow, evasive Tommy.
There is certainly a trippy quality to the tale, augmented by unusual hues in the flashbacks, which are rich in yellows, greens and blues, but the rock ‘n’ roll is astonishingly sincere. Trask’s compositions and Mitchell’s belting delivery are reminiscent of David Bowie, especially on the memorable ballad "Origin of Love" introduced in Chapter 6 and reprised in Chapter 25, with its haunting, insistent guitar lines. As a rock star, Hedwig is so compelling that we’re drawn into the connective tissue between the music – we respond to the lure of what feels like actual stardom. On stage, Hedwig’s act may have seemed tackier or less assured, but the film makes the incongruity of Hedwig’s urgency and outrageous song topics work in a different way. Mitchell puts us in the very strange position of at once noticing that we’re looking at something very out of the ordinary without trying to make it either satiric or overly tragic.
The mood is quizzical and contemplative between songs, and pedal-to-the-metal when Hedwig is belting out a tune. While it’s arguably even harder to break into the music business than to make a feature film, Mitchell’s performance and Trask’s compositions are so formidable that it’s easy to imagine them finding success by simply cranking out the "Hedwig" songs as a straight album rather than in the context of the plot. Of course, they might not have had as much fun that way – they may be the first rockers to use "Plato’s Symposium" as the basis for a number.
Sound placement on the DTS track is a little idiosyncratic. Many musical numbers have the quality of stadium rock, even when Hedwig is performing in tiny dives. The size of the soundstage deliberately doesn’t match the image, but this may be the point – Hedwig’s imagination is always much larger than her/his surroundings. Chapter 2 makes us feel as if we’re in the middle of a crowd, with big music and smaller audience sounds coming at us from all sides. In contrast, during Chapter 12’s "Angry Inch" number, the rears are primarily used for musical fill. Elsewhere, some sound effects seem like a mistake – in Chapter 19, a rainstorm raging outside sounds as though it’s in the room with the characters. This chapter also contains a door slam in the right main, which stands out because it’s one of the DVD’s few major directional effects.
"Hedwig" comes with cheerful commentary from Mitchell and cinematographer Frank De Marco, some "deleted scenes" (one of these is simply a collection of takes of Ben-Mayer’s delightful, fearless dance on his bed) and an 86-minute documentary on the making of the movie. This last gets off to a truly annoying start by appearing to mock any questions viewers might have about the film – perhaps this wasn’t the intention, but it has the effect of squelching curiosity.
However, "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" itself is so original and vital that it’s worth seeing – and the driving, soaring rock score is even more worth hearing.