As much as I want it to, the Hedwig and the Angry Inch phenomenon just can’t be summed up by my 600 words or so. The stage play, debuting in 1998, has grown so popularity that no fewer than six actors have filled the lead role and many famous rockers (such as Joan Jett) have joined the Angry Inch on stage to blast out Steven Trask’s wonderful pop-rock/Broadway-esque songs to a welcome audience. John Cameron Mitchell’s brainchild based on an old German w***e in a trailer park has blossomed into an event that takes place on stage and screen in a mix of sound, fury, and cross-dressing.
It’s no secret that the stage play worked brilliantly for the format it was presented in, one long concert with commentary and stand-up from Hedwig, the East Berlin refugee who came to the United States dealing with the outcome of her botched sex change operation. But when it comes to film, stage shows undeniably have to lose and gain things. In the theater, yokels in the cheap seats have to feel the same emotion the front row people do. On film however, a look, a shrug, or a short line of dialogue is blown into maximum proportion and featuring the same performance on both formats can create a hokey, belligerent, and loud-mouthed farce that is painful to sit through. John Cameron Mitchell however has defied expectations and crafted a stellar film that works on so many levels it takes multiple viewings to get those levels straight. Just like Hedwig herself, the film is more than it seems on the surface and don’t let the diversionary exploitive language on the packaging proclaiming its likeness to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” throw you off. I for one loathe “Rocky Horror” for many reasons and I had quite a bit of trepidation to viewing Hedwig because of those comparisons. How wrong I was. In fact, many of the reasons I dislike that old 70’s glam musical are the same reasons I love the new millennium’s glam rock opus. Since Hedwig is a performer by nature the songs that come out aren’t spontaneous and they have a point, either pushing forward the plot or are simply a statement on Hedwig’s emotional state. Your entrance to characters bursting into song isn’t a breach birth but a gradual process, much like in “Moulin Rouge,” where you get so used to the idea that by the end credits the performances aren’t jarring but welcomed. Trask’s songs are at times derivative but always feature an original take somewhere inside them on the well-tread musical avenues explored and the lyrics are, at times, so wonderfully poetic and golden you can’t wait to stop watching the film and pop the soundtrack CD in your prospective player.
The plot of the film focuses on Hedwig and her band’s trek across the country playing homely, pathetic restaurants located next to the monster stadium venues featuring Tommy Gnosis, Hedwig’s former lover and the boy she taught to become a superstar. Tommy then left her behind, leaving Hedwig destined to cover the pages of tabloid journalism proclaiming “I wrote every song on that album!” but without sufficient proof to prove such an accusation.
Thanks to the five-star documentary included on this disc we get an in-depth look as to how the stage rock musical was brought to the film rock spectacle it is now. Without the strong, guiding hand of Mitchell, who wrote, directed, and starred in this tour de force, the film would’ve spun out of control and lost itself midway through, destined to become a cult favorite and one of those “almost great” movies. But instead the strong script, sharp editing choices, and great tidbits of animation are so well formulated that the viewer is stunned by the depth transmitted on screen. This is a journey so heartbreaking and poignant that Mitchell’s performance could possibly be the best of 2001.
VIDEO ^ While this is certainly a low-budget feature the sharp video would lead you to believe otherwise. In 1.78:1 Anamorphic Widescreen video, New Line proves again why it’s at the top of the video demo-disc heap. The colors-anything from Hedwig’s elaborate costumes to the deep, endless blacks in the night scenes-jump from the screen and are a sight to behold. Some grain, inherent the source, is easily seen, but that’s a testament to the great encoding job more so than it is a flaw in the transfer. A few contrast problems come up now and then, but only the technical minded viewer would catch such inconsistencies, with everyone else marveling on how such beautiful images were created with such a small budget.
AUDIO ^ Being a musical, the soundtrack for the disc is of the utmost importance and New Line doesn’t let us down. Presented in Dolby Surround 2.0, Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1, these options rock your system with powerful bass and great ambiance. Though the dialogue is sometimes a bit forced and the ADR can get a little annoying, neither is bad enough to become distracting and when the rock songs come on strong prepare for some great multi-channel material. While I’m a big fan of Dolby Digital, the DTS again proves the frontrunner with smooth, low bass and exquisite highs that are wonderfully rendered. The 2.0 track is serviceable, but with a film so musically-inclined, those without a surround sound setup are going to be missing out on half the experience. English Closed-Captions and subtitles are also included for hearing impaired viewers.
EXTRAS ^ Though not a full-blown Infinifilm disc, this Platinum Edition hosts some truly fantastic features that highlight the film in the best way possible.
Whether You Like It Or Not: The Story of Hedwig (85:29) ^ This is bar-none the best documentary I’ve seen come out on a disc in 2001. While Star Wars: Episode 1 featured the excellent “The Beginning” doc, it was a truncated and far too short affair. This feature-length exposé into the world of Hedwig and the roots of such a great story and character is a sight to behold. Gripping and intelligent with some of the best editing of the year, every major player involved with the production and the process of bringing the film to fruition is included and their comments are priceless. John Cameron Mitchell takes us on the powerful journey of bringing Hedwig to the screen beginning with the meeting of Stephen Trask on a plane ride to shoddy home video footage of Hedwig’s premier performance in a gay punk club to winning several awards at the Sundance Film Festival. Quite simply, this is how a documentary should be done! Fascinating and amazingly truthful, nary a stone is unturned and from the raw audition footage, insightful stories, and perceptive looks on the arduous schedule required for such a rushed production, this is the best look at the making of a film that I’ve seen in a long time and don’t you dare miss out on it.
Screen-Specific Commentary by John Cameron Mitchell and Director of Photography Frank DeMarco ^ This track didn’t turn out like I thought it would. One would imagine Mitchell waxing philosophic on how the character came about and why he chose this actor and how the script turned out the way it did. Maybe even sprinkling a few great tidbits on how to better direct or how his writing habits developed. Instead we get a mainly technical-minded track, most of it thanks to the DP hanging out with Mitchell, and just a little of the much sought-after information I was looking forward to. Some in-jokes are explained and the experience of making such a wild production is covered in-depth, but nevertheless I was disappointed. It slowly gets less and less talky as the film winds down, but this remains a solid track for those more interested in the nuts and bolts of the film instead of the themes, character arcs, and casting choices.
Deleted Scenes ^ Two deleted scenes are listed but you can access a third, the deleted animated sequence, by selecting Hedwig’s wild wig on the right side of the menu. The two “official” deletes are “Bedroom Boogie,” a useless minute of the young Hedwig dancing on his bed, and “Alternate/Deleted Sequence,” which is actually a collection of scenes such an alternate take on the record store confrontation and Yitzhak’s untold backstory, which I feel should’ve been included in the film. Regardless of their worthiness these scenes, and even the hidden animated sequence, do nothing to push the narrative forward and I can easily empathize with their deletions. Commentary is available by Mitchell and DeMarco on these scenes but their insights are sparse afterthoughts at best.
Lastly there is the Song Index where you can go directly to your favorite opus and New Line has included the Theatrical Trailer in Anamorphic Widescreen along with some Filmographies for those interested.
OVERALL ^ The hype is real. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is truly one of the most blazingly original pieces of work to come out of 2001 and more than deserves the heaps of awards bestowed on it. While I suggest keeping an open mind about the subject matter, there is something universal in the alienation and heartbreak Hedwig feels that we can all connect to. New Line was behind the film 100% and has done a fantastic job with a DVD that surpasses my wildest expectations with great supplements and an awesome presentation in what will soon become a modern classic.
OVERALL (DVD): * * * * * – 5 Stars ^ MOVIE: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ VIDEO: * * * * – 4 Stars ^ AUDIO: * * * * ½ – 4.5 Stars ^ EXTRAS: * * * * – 4 Stars