Hedwig and the Angry Inch
John Cameron Mitchell is the writer, director and star of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch," and he also wrote the lyrics to the songs (with composer Stephen Trask) in this amazing one-of-a-kind production. Based on his Off-Broadway hit, the film more than survives, it even triumphs in its new incarnation. The story itself is so unlikely that it has the feeling of absolute authenticity. It is told by Hedwig, a singer with her own band whose only gigs are playing behind the salad bar to a half-dozen people in a ratty chain of restaurants called Bilgewaters, and following her former protegé Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) around in his huge arena tour, as he sings songs she wrote but that he's stolen from her.
Let's go back and start again; bear with me. "Hedwig" is the story of little Hansel, born in Germany to an East German mother and an American soldier father, who after molesting Hansel is kicked out, never to be seen again. Little Hansel loves American rock & roll music, but his mother can't stand anything American and makes Hansel listen and play only inside the oven, whose walls he's lined with pop Americana. When he grows up he meets Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), another American soldier, who tells Hansel that he will marry him and take him to America if he gets a sex-change operation. But the operation is botched, hence the 'angry inch,' and Luther abandons Hansel, now Hedwig, at an army base in Kansas.
Hedwig, now composing and singing rock & roll music, takes a number of jobs ("mostly blow," she tells us) around the base, and finds young Tommy, a Christian fanatic, who becomes her protegé and lover. The rest of the story, told in her songs and in animated sequences by Emily Hubley, leads to a sort-of reconciliation and a forced ending that's the only weak spot in the film.
The important thing about all of this is that Mitchell is simply brilliant. He is a wonderful singer, with power and snap and the ability to command both us and the stage. He is stunning, with the best pair of legs since Dietrich, and he plays Hedwig to the hilt without a moment of irony or self-consciousness. And the songs themselves are terrific, ranging from hard rock to what you might call folkabilly, with even a ballad or two thrown in. As director he's staged everything just right, not reaching for effects but treating it all as though it were a documentary.
There are a number of small pleasures and byways scattered through the film, including Hedwig's current lover, Yitzhak the bearded guitarist in the band (played by a woman, Miriam Shor), and the use of animation to enrich the meaning of what the film tells us about gender and sex roles.
Don't think of "Hedwig" as a mockumentary along the lines of "Spinal Tap," because unlike that film it is in no way a one-joke creation. It takes itself seriously and rewards our attention. It isn't like "Rocky Horror" either, since it has characters rather than caricatures. It is sui generis and is a pleasure from beginning to end.