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In 1984, British journalist Arthur Stuart investigates the career of 1970s glam superstar Brian Slade, who was heavily influenced in his early years by hard-living and rebellious American singer Curt Wild.
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Hedwig, born a boy named Hansel in East Berlin, fell in love with an American G.I. and underwent a sex-change operation in order to marry him and flee to the West. Unfortunately, nothing worked out quite as it was supposed to - years later, Hedwig is leading her rock band on a tour of the U.S., telling her life story through a series of concerts at Bilgewater Inn seafood restaurants. Her tour dates coincide with those of arena-rock star Tommy Gnosis, a wide-eyed boy who once loved Hedwig... but then left with all her songs. Written by
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My sex change operation got botched; my guardian angel fell asleep on the watch; now all I got is a Barbie doll crotch; I've got an angry inch!
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No matter how much I do praise it, I'll end up turning people against it. But, let me ask you: what were you expecting when you first heard of Hedwig and the Angry Inch? It's been billed as a punk rock musical about a transsexual from East Germany who was duped into coming to live in a trailer park in Kansas City. So what was I expecting? A gay camp film. I had no doubts that it would be anything else. And that's not to say that I wouldn't have enjoyed a gay camp movie. After all, I liked Moulin Rouge. But I got a surprise that was entirely unexpected: what I experienced was the best new film I had seen in years. And I mean that. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is equally hilarious and touching. Not that I want to spread cliches, but I seriously laughed and I seriously cried, often simultaneously. This manages to be the best American comedy since, damn, Preston Sturges was still writing and directing. It's easily the best movie musical since Cabaret. It's also one of the most heartfelt and passionate dramas, and one of the best character studies I've ever seen. Along with that, John Cameron Mitchell delivers a performance that perhaps hasn't been equalled since, I don't know, Robert DeNiro in Raging Bull, which might be the ultimate cinematic character study. I shouldn't say that, because it might hint that Hedwig is a dark character, but, well, I'd call her just a great protagonist. She's a heroine, especially to anyone experiencing sexual confusion, but even to me, a straight, Midwestern boy. Hedwig is a heroine for anyone who's ever felt that they've been treated like crap their entire life. I wanted to clap for and support Hedwig emotionally throughout the entire film. In short, Hedwig is a character I deeply loved, equal to just a few other characters I've met throughout my extensive journeys in the cinema. Parallel to a situation in the film, if I should ever see John Cameron Mitchell on the street, I'd have to hug him.
I also have another heap of praise that I have to go through before I am done. I've always thought that movie musicals adapted from stage plays were the death of the genre. Only a few exceptions ever seemed more than unimaginative, slavish films that worked only to bring Broadway to an audience who could or would never visit NYC. Cabaret was the one big exception that I had seen previously, but you also hear West Side Story mentioned as being a great film. But, in adapting a stage play for the screen, I always expect the film to seem stranded on stage. To boot, Hedwig had another mark against it: the director, Mitchell again, had never directed a film before. Well, I really don't know what training he had in the art, but it must have been enough. The cinematic art, at least the visual aspect of it, has nearly been forgotten in the 1990s and 2000s, but John Cameron Mitchell creates a visual tour de force as much as he does one of writing and acting. I love the scene where Hedwig the adult reminisces about how his mother forced him to put his head in the oven if he wanted to sing when he was a child. And Hedwig and the Angry Inch's (that's the band's name as well as the film's) appearance outside the Menses Festival next to the port-o-potties. A goth chick, who presumably didn't have tickets for the actual Menses Festival, watches the band in deep curiosity and confusion; Hedwig invites the girl to sit up on stage with her while she relates her past. I also love the sequence where the American G.I. discovers him laying naked in rubble. Hedwig's original name was Hansel, which leads to one of the funniest jokes I can ever recall seeing. Or how about the scene where Hedwig, when babysitting, discovers Tommy, the future rock star who steals all her songs, masturbating in the bath tub? That scene is handled so well that I almost died laughing. To tell you the truth, I don't think there is anything ostensibly wrong with the film, period. I just wanted to talk about the amazing direction because the one review of it I have on hand says "the direction can't help from being flat." FLAT? How can you say that it is flat? PS: The animated number and the song that goes along with it is adapted from Aristophanes' speech in Plato's Symposium, about which I wrote my senior thesis in college. The rock star's stage name, Gnosis, is Ancient Greek for "knowledge," which Hedwig actually says in the film. One of the filmmakers must have learned Ancient Greek at some point in his life. Bravo, good sirs.
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