Hedwig and the Angry Inch
review by Gregory Avery, 10 August 2001

In the opening scene of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell, lithe-waisted and wearing a gold flip-curled wig, spreads wide the cape he is wearing so that the audience can see its inscription, "YANKEE GO HOME -- WITH ME," and then defies the audience to tear him down like they tore down the Berlin Wall, before exploding into the opening song. "Explode" is putting it mildly: the opening musical performance fairly sweeps you into the movie, take no prisoners-style, and fully charges up the scene for what follows.

Hedwig, the German chanteuse played by Mitchell, relates, partly through song, the story of how he started out as Hansel, born in the same year that the Berlin Wall first went up, during which his mother fled with the lad -- to East Berlin, not to West Berlin and freedom. Hans grew up inspired by the music heard through Armed Forces Radio, but the song stylists who made the most impression on him were not singers like Judy Garland or Eartha Kitt, but Toni Tennille, Olivia Newton-John, and Anne Murray (the latter, of course, being Canadian, as Hedwig points out, but none the worse for it). An American G.I. becomes smitten with Hans and offers to take him West, but only as his wife, so Hans undergoes the hurried operation that will turn him into Hedwig -- almost. As he puts it in one of his more punk-influenced songs, what occurred was "six inches forward, five inches back." When Hedwig gets dumped in Junction City, Kansas, of all places, and becomes involved with the young man (Michael Pitt) who will become the future rock star Tommy Gnosis, it is that "angry inch" that puts the kibosh on anything romantic between Hedwig and Tommy.

John Cameron Mitchell both co-wrote the stage production on which this film is based and played Hedwig in the original off-Broadway production (which had a phenomenal two year run), so he had plenty of opportunity to fully realize Hedwig's particular brand of hard-nosed determination and desperation, all of which keep the proceedings from turning into anything resembling camp, and all of which has been fully transferred to the screen. (Mitchell also wrote and directed this film, part of an attempt to hang-up Hedwig's wig, if not permanently, then for a while.) Hedwig's musical career has fallen under the shadow of Tommy's, who has had the success -- with, according to Hedwig, music and songs stolen by Tommy -- that has eluded Hedwig. The film comes most to life during the musical sections, which are, frankly, terrific: the songs by Stephen Trask show the influence of, for instance, David Bowie's sometimes anthemic early Seventies songs without becoming derivative, and which are performed with an almost evangelical fervor of energy. Others, such as "The Origin of Love," which hauntingly depicts a world that was first created with whole people who were then split in two and spend the rest of their existence searching for their other half, fully stand well on their own.

Hedwig is, if not "stalking," then "shadowing" Tommy Gnosis ' current concert tour by playing in a series of chain restaurants, with salad bars, that span across the U.S. heartland; the hard-driving musical performances, with their references to sexual confusion and heartache, leave the diners in stunned but bewildered silence. The film opens-out the original stage show's story so that we now follow the "world tour" of the "internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you." It makes the story more linear, but it also seems to have let a little of the air out of it, as well, and the film's own regard as to what becomes of Hedwig, in the end, becomes, in spite of itself, ambiguous. Hedwig eventually sheds the artifice -- the wigs, the costumes, the bitter self-mocking and spiteful attitude -- for a more truer self, but what that "new" self is, and what is to become of it, is amorphous in both conception and execution. The film gives us credit that we'll figure it out for ourselves, but we need more information and more clues than it gives us in order to do so. And this is aside from the fact that John Cameron Mitchell's performance of the closing song is exhilarating. That performance shows that Hedwig and the Angry Inch has succeeded in capturing a great performance, but it's one that needs a better movie to go around it.

Written and
Directed by:

John Cameron Mitchell

John Cameron Mitchell
Miriam Shor
Michael Pitt
Alberta Watson
Andrea Martin

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult







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