John Cameron Mitchell has certainly got a twisted mind. His adaptation of his own Off-Broadway musical calls to mind the spirit of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, though not the actual details. The story is bizarre, the songs outrageous, and the characters are all as far removed from any concept of normality as possible. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, Hedwig and the Angry Inch smacks of a certain truth about finding where you belong.
Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell), the self-described "internationally ignored song-stylist," is on the road with her band, shadowing Tommy Gnosis, a rock superstar who stole her songs. Through her music and assorted flashbacks, we learn her tale. She used to be Hansel, a glam-rockin' East German boy. In his 20s, he fell in love with Luther Robinson (Maurice Dean Wint), a United States army sergeant. One botched sex change operation later, and Hansel becomes Hedwig, a philosophical diva with the titular angry inch as the last vestige of her previous manhood (6 inches forward and 5 inches, as one of her numbers goes). Abandoned in the American Midwest by her miltary savior, she began a band and a quest to find her "other half," the one person to complete her and soothe the wounds of her divided personality.
As a director, Mitchell has three shooting modes, used to seperate the strands of his narrative. First is a Spinal Tap-esque objective eye, used for the band when it is not in performance. During the flashbacks, it's standard drama photography, but with some added spark and quirk. Finally, for the bands big performance numbers, the camera operator gets injections of caffeine, so as to make the whole thing a hyperactive MTV affair. Mitchell isn't an expert (he lets the pace drag a bit in the middle), he's certainly somebody to look out for in the future.
Then, there's the music...oh, the glorious music by Stephen Trask. Somehow, it manages to work on two levels that most showtunes do not. Each song furthers the story by giving us some additional insight into Hedwig's person and history. On top of that, though, nearly every ditty is damned enjoyable on its own and very few of them require a knowledge of Hedwig to stand (two notable exceptions being Angry Inch and Hedwig's Lament). However, Wicked Little Town and Origin of Love could both conceivably be runaway pop hits, if given the right radio play. Wig in a Box is the most "Broadway" of the set, and I've been known to sign the refrain over and over again...I won't lie.
And now I hear some poor guy saying, "Alright, Nate...you thought the direction was alright. The music kicks ass, so you say. Big deal. I can buy the soundtrack and move on with my life."
The sad thing (other than the fact that I'm hearing voices) is that if that reader decides against seeing this film, they are missing out on an bravura performance from Mitchell as the rock singer who is just trying to forge an identity. At times caustic, at others quite droll, Mitchell's Hedwig is the very definition of a person hiding their fear and confusion under a mask. Yet, there are other points where Hedwig is nothing but frank, and so searingly truthful in her emotion as to make one sympathize with her. Even though she has experienced things few people on planet Earth have, there is some part of this paragon of sexual ambiguity that is doggedly omnipresent...her search for completeness in her life is one that we have all experienced, and Mitchell brings out that universality with astonishing clarity.
Matching that is Michael Pitt as Tommy Gnosis. Pitt's scenes with Mitchell are probably the best in the film, as the two have an incredible chemistry. Especially noteworthy is one of their final confrontation...one with circumstances and results that are difficult to describe in print (and even if I could I wouldn't). Though Mitchell says not a word during that entire part, his face says everything... It is truly one of the best moments in film of 2001.
Hopefully, our dismissive reader stayed with us to this last paragraph. "Gee," they might say, "I feel like a goof. I'm going to go rent Hedwig and the Angry Inch tonight!" I certainly hope so, because their probably won't be another film this edgy for a good long while.