For the first time in a great while, we have a movie year featuring two very good musicals: Moulin Rogue, and now Hedwig and the Angry Inch.Part concert film, part full-blown musical, Hedwig tells the story of a transsexual rock singer (writer-director John Cameron Mitchell) touring the U.S. via seafood restaurants and telling her story to somewhat shocked consumers of lobster and crab.
The film works as a comedy and, surprisingly, becomes a touching, even heartbreaking story as it unspools. While the plot details are mighty outlandish, Mitchell, through his incredible performance, creates a character that is campy yet dramatically viable and sympathetic.
Hedwig’s story unfolds through the often fantastic music of Stephen Trask. Born a boy named Hansel in East Berlin, where his mother forced him to play in the oven, the future Hedwig grows up listening to David Bowie and Anne Murray on American radio. When a creepy GI (Maurice Dean Wint) hangs around offering gummy bears and talks of marriage, Hansel submits to a sex-change operation. That operation is botched, leaving Hansel with an “angry inch” and an identity crisis.
After being abandoned in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig forms a band and starts playing at monster truck rallies. She catches the eye of young Tommy (Michael Pitt), takes him under her wing and shows him the ways of rock. The two write songs together, and Tommy steals the work after discovering the truth about Hedwig’s sexual identity.
Selfishly, Tommy Gnosis becomes a star with their material, and Hedwig’s manager (Andrea Martin) is mandated to book gigs in every town where Tommy plays (this leads to a great moment when Hedwig throws open a door during one of her shows, revealing Tommy playing one of her songs next door).
The primary reason Hedwig is so enjoyable is the charisma of Mitchell in the lead role. This is one of the more shockingly original characters in a long time. While the movie feels like it will be some variation of This is Spinal Tap in its opening scenes, Mitchell begins to take the movie into another direction that focuses less on comedy and more on Hedwig’s search for identity and acceptance. His performance is so likable that it’s easy to accept the film’s transition from straight-up comedy to more serious issues.
The strong soundtrack provides music that is funny, touching and rousing. If you had told this Rocky Horror Picture Show hater that he’d be humming tunes from a transsexual musical days after seeing the film, I would’ve responded with “Bollocks … now go away!”
Standout tunes include “Tear Me Down,” a tune in which Hedwig likens herself to the Berlin Wall, “Midnight Radio,” a dramatic ode to music, and my personal favorite, “Wig in a Box,” which features a sing-along complete with a bouncing wig over the lyrics. Mitchell has a good voice, and the band backing him up, including the excellent Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s husband, are capable musicians.
Hedwig started as an off-Broadway production that eventually toured, and at one time featured The Breakfast Club‘s Ally Sheedy (her turn as Hedwig was not appreciated). The play’s journey to the big screen is a successful one, featuring eye-catching animation by Emily Hubley that creates sort of a Pink Floyd: The Wall vibe.
Rock musicals have not represented the very best in cinema (consider The Who’s miserable Tommy film, and I’m a Who fan). Hedwig and the Angry Inch restores faith in the idea that rock musicals can work. It has me wishing somebody would go back and remake Tommy, and Mitchell would probably be a good candidate for the job.