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By Ron Wells | March 14, 2005

And they said the movie musical was dead. To be sure, the genre’s looked better, but not since before Vietnam began to get ugly. Spontaneous song and dance numbers no longer held much interest for a troubled America. Eventually, Hollywood took the hint and then made them only sporadically.
In the last couple of years, a diverse group of filmmakers have chosen to revive the musical, but not without some experimentation with its form. Last year saw the release of two radically different musicals, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Dancer In the Dark. They may not have worked for everyone, but for many they were magical. Others are on the way in 2001 (Moulin Rouge, “The American Astronaut”), but few film releases of any type will likely have the impact of an off-Broadway adaptation called “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
I could probably tell you every detail of the story and it wouldn’t really matter. It would be like relating the plot of “Rocky Horror Picture Show”; the pleasure is all in the experience. Then again, I’ll give it a shot anyway. We first meet the quite bitter and catty Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) performing in the first of a series of dumpy chain seafood restaurants with her pan-Slavic band, The Angry Inch. These are probably the best gigs they could get and still match the stadium tour schedule for Hedwig’s greatest obsession, mega-star Tommy Gnosis (Michæl Pitt). Claiming responsibility for his image and his songs, our slighted heroine has waged war in the tabloids until the day she can finally confront him in person. Until then, Hedwig’s statement is her songs; a jaw-dropping, a*s-kicking set spanning both the musical spectrum and the sordid tale of her existence.
She began life as Hansel, an East German boy raised on dreams of American Rock n’ Roll by Armed Forces Radio. That dream appeared within grasp once American G.I. Luther (Maurice Dean Wint) professes love and commitment to the teenaged Hansel. The catch is that to bring the boy to America they have to be married. The only way that can happen is if one of them has a change in equipment. Hansel fatefully consents to what will be an extremely botched sex-change operation. The results leave his manhood truncated to the length of one inch; an ANGRY INCH. Still, donning a wig and his mother’s name, the newly christened Hedwig leaves Hansel behind for life in America.
Even in America, happiness yet eludes her. Luther lasts a couple of years before he abandons Hedwig in a Kansas trailer park for another boy. The future diva soon pulls herself together over the course of a musical number and sets out to fulfill the old dream of rock stardom, Forming her first band from Korean army wives, she scrapes by on the odd babysitting (or blow) job. The full ranged of her skills come in handy upon meeting the next man in her life, a shy, 17-year-old boy named Tommy. Neither has any idea what they’ve initiated or what they’re in for. Love, anger, and Rock n’ Roll ensue.
This is an astonishing achievement. I had been aware going in of the original play, but my vague expectations hewed closer to some kind of new “Rocky Horror Picture Show.” What I found instead owed as much to “Pink Floyd’s The Wall.” It’s not the similar use of animated segments, so much as the emotional rawness of the piece. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the story of an individual who feels incomplete both physically and emotionally. The sting of multiple romantic betrayals leads her down a dark path where she eventually must find a wholeness from within herself. The audience riding along on this trip is allowed to sit close enough to the action to feel like they’re riding shotgun inside of Hedwig’s head.
At this short range, all of her anger, alienation, loneliness, and humor strike with enough force to punch a hole right into the viewers’ hearts.
Now I am giving this movie a very rare five-star rating, but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect. No work of art is perfect. This only indicates that I had a near perfect film-viewing experience. Yeah, it looked great and sounded great, but even better there never seemed to be a moment when I didn’t feel connected to the action onscreen. Hell, one of the basic problems with traditional show tunes is the frequent habit of emotionally disconnecting the audience as soon as the first note kicks in. Then it’s usually about a little plot advance and a lot of spectacle. However the music of “Hedwig”, written by Mitchell collaborator Stephen Trask, possessed not only the sound, but the character of rock songs. Like the Blues before it, Rock n’ Roll is all about expressing the emotional state of the singer. This is the key to Mitchell’s performance, as his delivery of each number communicates not only particular events, but exactly how the character feels about them. The result is that unlike traditional musicals, any emotion resonance to be found isn’t interrupted by every little music cue.
While I’m speaking of him, let’s send credit for this masterpiece to the one man who most deserves it: John Cameron Mitchell. As star and co-writer of the original production (Stephen Trask contributed music and lyrics), the movie’s producers Killer Films correctly understood that only Mitchell should serve as star, screenwriter, and director of the big screen edition.
It could have been a disaster. A far more experienced filmmaker could have made any number of fatal mistakes. Maybe they wouldn’t have quite “got” the themes, or felt very strongly about them. A different person might have been too consumed by the tawdry surface elements (as in films like the “Batman” movies) to draw the audience deeper into the piece. Maybe another director wouldn’t have connected or related to Hedwig, inadvertently causing her to appear less sympathetic or just a freak. Somewhere there’s a crowded graveyard full of hit stage musicals murdered by talented directors on their way to the multiplex. Film is an intimate medium where a facial twitch or a whispered inflection can mean everything. Live theater has to connect with the poor bastards in the cheap seats. Nuance can’t reach past the first few rows. Unfortunately, not many studio decision-makers will embrace the idea of bringing spectacle to the screen only to tone it down.
Hey, Milos Forman is an undeniably brilliant director, but even as a teenager I could kind of see where he went wrong with his adaptation of “Hair” (other than the material was a little stale by the 1979 release). It always seemed as if he’d put the camera only close enough to the action to remain out of emotional range. Sure, you could see everything, but the placement felt like that of some impartial observer. Forman’s other dramatic features greatly benefit from this reserved approach, but an opus built entirely upon themes of political awakening and outrage needs more of an Oliver Stone approach. Without the reinforced psychological context, you’re left watching a bunch of self-righteous hippies who won’t get off the dining room table.
Look, John Cameron Mitchell may have been a first-time director, but no one else could have possibly known the material any better. The assured results feel like the product of a man with a vision who knew exactly what he wanted. She may not feel whole in her own mind, but Hedwig is never presented as less than a complete person, flaws and all. You’ll never question whom you’re supposed to root for, either. You’re not seeing the story unfold from the perspective of some guy who walked in from the street. This is Hedwig telling her story to YOU. This leads to what I believe is Mitchell’s greatest achievement with the film: The main character here is an extremely pissed-off transsexual rock star and occasional prostitute. In most films such a character would nearly always be marginalized or subject to charicature. Despite that, from almost the very beginning on there wasn’t a moment where I feel I didn’t know how Hedwig felt or what she was going through. I always felt CONNECTED. This means that I could feel her pain and loneliness, but also the hope and degree of peace that arrive near the end. Isn’t that the primary job of a director, to make the film in a manner that will best connect with an audience? Isn’t the real measure of art what occurs between the object of a media and the person taking it in? Isn’t this the kind of experience that made you love movies in the first place?
Alright, that’s enough ranting. Maybe after all that you’ll go out and see the film and hate it. Somehow I doubt that. It’s been a while since we’ve seen anything like “Rocky Horror Picture Show”, “Pink Floyd’s The Wall”, or any of the other small number of movies all college kids watch late at night when they’re stoned. We’re about due. Of course from here Mitchell may turn out like “Rocky Horror” author Richard O’Brien; never be able to hit the same heights of success a second time. I hope he fares better. If not, he can still console himself with two things– decades of adoration from future rabid “Hedwig” fans and the knowledge that he’s created one more masterpiece than most anyone else has.
Read the exclusive Film Threat interview with Hedwig star and director John Cameron Mitchell>>>

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