Hedwig and the Angry Inch
2001, R, 91 min. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Maurice Dean Wint, Alberta Watson, Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Stephen Trask, Miriam Shor.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 31, 2001
Despite the glowering of her irritable, angry inch, Hedwig -- the girl and the movie -- only wants to be loved. Adapted for film from the off-Broadway musical hit, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a screen spectacle that beseeches its audience for adoration and mass acceptance. This drama queen's likely to get not only what she needs, but also what she wants: love, unfettered and unconditional. Poised for cult popularity, Hedwig seems eager to be embraced by the late-night, dress-up perpetuators of song-and-dance camp who might be ready to give The Rocky Horror Picture Show another inch -- or mile. Hedwig is no “sweet transvestite from Transylvania,” however. She is, instead, a surgically botched transsexual from East Germany, who exists in an indeterminate but politically charged space between freedom and frustration, looking to be whole and looking for her personal dividing wall to smash into ruin. Unfortunately, the character's dramatic odyssey is rarely more focused than this. Hedwig is a charismatic character (who is also played most charismatically and winningly by the show's creator and film director, John Cameron Mitchell) whose severed sense of self derives from her youthful experiences growing up as a gay rock & roller in East Germany and her adult world-view, which is best articulated in the song “The Origin of Love.” The song presents a storybook tale about the division of the sexes that borrows some hazy snatches from Aristotelian logic, Platonic myth, and Genesis, and throws them all together with some lovely animation by Emily Hubley as the shaky philosophical foundation for Hedwig's quest. When broken down, the story's underpinnings make little concrete sense but, oh, it's presented with such conviction and panache. And it's this -- the movie's spectacle and style -- which become its major selling points (which is no small thing when you get right down to it). The movie is undeniably funny too, pierced with clever wit and bitchy throwaways. Again, Mitchell's talent is a force to be reckoned with. He parlays not only a drag perfection that reveals Hedwig with textured nuances that range from boisterous stage diva to defenseless damsel, but also discloses a marvelous directorial sensibility that often playfully pokes at the screen's physical and conventional boundaries. Why else make a modern film musical? Despite some jerky narrative segues, Hedwig and the Angry Inch presents the lion's share of its story through its music. While the strategy is admirable, the music composed by Stephen Trask is simply not up to the rigors of feature-length storytelling. Instead of rock opera, the tunes (as was pointed out to me by a friend) bear a spooky resemblance to the “bat out of hell” style of dramatic power ballads belted out by Meat Loaf. (In fact, subsequent to seeing the movie, Meat Loaf reportedly contracted with Trask to rework some of the songs for the big guy to perform.) The songs may be serviceable, but hardly stand up to the timeless demands of repeat viewings. The show belongs wholly to Mitchell, although good moments are also claimed by Andrea Martin, Miriam Shor, and Michael Pitt in what are otherwise sketchy roles. Mitchell truly deserves to be proud of his baby, but he needs to toss out some of the murky bathwater that surrounds Hedwig.