There’s something humbling just in the fact that John Cameron Mitchell writes, directs and stars in this adaptation of the Off Broadway stage musical, but the real shock is that the film, his first, turns out to be a wonderfully twisted comedy doubling with insightful, moving drama and a collection of original musical numbers to die for. The film is constructed with theatricality, unsurprisingly, with a lot of the action taking place in various crummy clubs and family restaurants in which transsexual German-American rocker Hedwig and his band, the Angry Inch (which also refers to the inch of flesh that remained after his botched sex change operation), perform. Yet it doesn’t get to feel too “staged” because Mitchell wisely spruces things up cinematically by cutting back and forth through Hedwig’s life and career through stylish flash-backs, cartoon sequences and dynamic camera work.
We get to see Hedwig as an East Berlin boy from the Communist side of the wall who dreams of America while he sings along to David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed. Later, now a confused teenager, Hedwig is picked up by a U.S. soldier with candy. Eventually Hedwig finds himself (herself?) in the United States, but pretty far from his American Dreams, a divorcée wannabe glam rock star mopping in a trailer park with only a geeky 17 year old with rock fantasies of his own to cheer her up. And then… Well, you’ll have to see the movie to see how things turn out, why Hedwig is now so bitter and what’s her beef with MTV emo-core icon Tommy Gnosis.
This is a tale of the few ups and many downs of a conflicted rock star, kind of like Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (made into a movie by Alan Parker), with some of the campiness and sexual flamboyance of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, and when the Angry Inch are playing on the 9th stage of a Lilith Fair-style festival or at a buffet restaurant in front of bemused senior citizens, you can’t help but think of “This is Spinal Tap!”. Yet “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is not a sub-product of classic rock movies, it’s actually on the same level as the best of the genre. First it’s got a fascinating central character in Hedwig, played with not only make-up, wigs and tacky costumes but also heart and soul by Mitchell. Then the lyricism of the imagery, with everything from a trail of gummy bears on the remains of a destroyed church, a neon-lit limo, an oven turned into a singing booth…
Content wise, the movie mostly stems from two unlikely sources to illustrate its themes of duality, identity and unity : the Berlin Wall and Plato’s Symposium on Love. The previous, which is notably the subject of the film’s opening song, “Tear me down”, is used as a metaphor for Hedwig’s condition ; like the city before the fall of the Wall, Hedwig is divided in two, torn between femininity and masculinity, love and lust, art and commerce. This is further explored in “The Origin of Love”, a very memorable number revolving around the Greek myth about how humans were once four-legged, four-armed, two-faced creatures so happy and powerful that they were slashed in half by the gods, who felt threatened. Hence, we’re now doomed to wander the earth looking for our other half, the person with whom we’ll be whole again. I really, really like this allegory, it’s simple, almost naive, but it’s also touchingly beautiful.
As you can see, the movie is more ambitious and thoughtful than your average rock & roll flick, but that doesn’t mean that it can’t rock hard when necessary. Many songs are downright punk in sound and attitude, and it’s a thrill to watch Hedwig and her musicians jumping around and getting crazy in tunes like “The Angry Inch”. The score by Stephen Trask juggles different styles, flirting with country music in “Sugar Daddy”, or going for old fashioned sing-along silliness with “Wig in a Box” and so on. And, though all the songs are all catchy enough to stand on their own, they’re also intricate to the story, serving as character development and moving the plot along. Personally, I believe music is a wonderful complement to the visual aspect of cinema. Song and dance numbers tend to give movies much more repeated viewing value. I know I’ll want to revisit a movie like “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” the same way I listen to a favorite LP over and over.