Directed by: John Cameron Mitchell
Starring: John Cameron Mitchell, Mike Pitt, Miriam Shor, Andrea Martin
Armed with a paltry $6 million budget, John Cameron Mitchell brings his off-Broadway show about "internationally ignored" East German drag-queen rocker Hedwig to the movies. As writer, lyricist, director and star Mitchell faced a daunting task -- one that he managed to pull off with all the elan of his title character. Hedwig and the Angry Inch (the "Angry Inch" in question being what was left of Hedwig -- nee Hansel -- after a botched sex-change operation) is a triumphant little film that's being compared to The Rocky Horror Picture Show and The Velvet Goldmine (and somewhat less explicably, Tommy and Moulin Rouge!). The fact that it deals with glam rock and gender bending makes the comparisons inevitable, but they are also ultimately inessential, because Hedwig is ... uh ... every inch its own film. It certainly contains echoes of other films (few things exist in a cultural vacuum), including the first two named -- as well as The Magic Christian and other films of the "British Invasion" era. In fact, Hedwig reminds me of the British TV film Rock Follies more than anything else, which is perhaps not surprising, since both share the unusual approach of presenting musical numbers that are shot in actual performance rather than in bits and pieces to a prerecorded soundtrack. (Plus, the Stephen Trask-John Cameron Michell songs in Hedwig are stylistically similar to the ones by Roxy Music's Andy Mackay in Rock Follies -- not to mention that both films are cases of making something out of very little in terms of money.) But Hedwig strikes a different chord than anything it can be compared to, owing to the uniqueness of the Hedwig character and the approach of having the story told in a series of monologues, flashbacks and songs as performed to miniscule and ill-suited audiences on Hedwig's American "tour." Moreover, Hedwig has the feel of a work that has been tried, polished and honed to perfection by Mitchell (especially as a performer) over years of performing it in front of a live audience. What emerges is a film that is both outrageously funny and very nearly heartbreaking -- sometimes simultaneously. When Hedwig talks about his childhood in East Berlin and having to "play" in the oven because the apartment was so small, it's both absurd and pathetic. But when the film then presents the image of the adult Hedwig with his head still in the oven, the childhood scarring is palpable, even while Hedwig delivers one of his funniest monologues about listening to the radio in that oven: "I would listen to the voices of the American masters: Toni Tennille. Debby Boone. Anne Murray, who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom. And then there were the cryptohomo rockers: Lou Reed. Iggy Pop. And David Bowie, who was actually an idiom working in America and Canada." In essence, Hedwig relates his life story to the uninterested, baffled and occasionally abusive patrons of the Bilgewater Restaurant chain into which his agent (Andrea Martin) has booked him. It turns out that there's method to the madness of his tour, since he's deliberately playing the same cities as the wildly successful Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt, Finding Forrester), a teenage Jesus freak whom Hedwig turned into a rocker after his own heart. "He introduced me to groups I'd never heard of -- Kansas, America, Asia, Europe. Travel exhausts me," complains Hedwig of Tommy, as he was before being introduced to Bowie and Lou Reed. Unfortunately, Tommy ultimately ran out on Hedwig, stole his songs and became a huge hit -- denying all involvement with his mentor. Hedwig plans ... what? Revenge? Compensation? Reconciliation? This is the crux of the film's present-day narrative. While it answers those questions, the film ultimately resolves itself in a quite different manner. What Hedwig wants and what Hedwig thinks he wants may not be the same thing. Hedwig is admittedly a little rough around the edges, but it's an adventurous, funny movie with more heart and soul than just about anything coming out of Hollywood. Of course, a musical is only as good as its songs. So how good are the songs in Hedwig? Put it this way, I'll be looking for the soundtrack album today.