Hedwig and the Angry Inch: John Cameron Mitchell’s Impressive Directing Debut

A conceptually bold, visually striking production, a style often associated with the work of indie producer Christine Vachon and brilliant designer Therese DePrez, marks Hedwig and the Angry Inch, an impressive screen adaptation of the long-running, critically acclaimed Off-Broadway rock stage hit.

John Cameron Mitchell, who conceived the role and embodied it in the New York production, makes a splashy feature directorial debut with a musical that’s been effectively translated to the big screen while still maintaining the stylization and intimate scale of the stage play.

This story of an “internationally ignored” rock singer, whose sex-change operation has left her with an angry inch, has serio-comic, often touching, dimensions that will surely appeal to its primary target audience of gay and hip urban viewers. Audacious subject matter and flamboyant treatment should also help this feature travel well the global gay and international film circuits, though crossover appeal appears to be limited.

Hedwig relates the highly moving, often hilarious story of a German-born misfit in search for stardom and love. Mitchell deserves credit not only as a captivating performer but also as an innovative writer-director who found the proper format, a collage of songs, flashbacks, and animation, and proper pace to recount an unusual tale that’s both emotionally heartbreaking and vastly entertaining. Like Velvet Goldmine, Todd Haynes’ bold musical (also produced by Killer Films), Hedwig boasts a richly dense texture, but, unlike that 1998 film, it is not hampered by a complicated multi-layered structure that prevented a more direct viewers’ involvement.

Hedwig is based on a much simpler narrative than Velvet, but it benefits from the immediacy of its approach and the undeniable charisma of its lead character who’s center-stage throughout the film, never allowing the side-plots, montages, and animation sequences to detract attention from the angst and satirical humor of the main story.

Born in East Germany and originally named Hansel by his severe, domineering mother (Alberta Watson), Hedwig is motivated by a single force in his life: To find his other half. It’s based on his hearing from his mom Plato’s gripping tale of how initially humans had two sets of arms, two sets of legs, and two faces until Zeus split them apart with his lightening bolt. This duality, which also translates into masculinity-femininity within human nature and body, serves as the unified theme of the deliberately fractured musical. Remarkably, despite numerous set-backs and defeats along the way, Hedwig’s physical and moral odyssey culminates in a most satisfying manner.

Through stylized flashbacks, we learn that Hedwig reluctantly submitted to a sex change operation in order to marry Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), a handsome African American G.I., and get over the notorious Berlin Wall to a desirable freedom. Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short, and before long Hedwig finds herself high, dry, and divorced in a shabby Kansas trailer park.

Unfazed, Hedwig pushes on to form a rock band. Things change dramatically after Hedwig meets young Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who becomes her protege and lover. However, eventually, Tommy steals Hedwig’s songs and brutally deserts her before becoming a huge rock star on his own. A bitter yet always witty Hedwig forms a pan-Slavic band, The Angry Inch, and goes on a tour of chain strip-mall seafood restaurants, performing in empty spaces to mostly bewildered diners–and a few die-hard fans.

Encouraged by her aggressive manager (Andrea Martin) to capitalize on her tabloid celebrity as Tommy’s ex-lover, Hedwig tries to shadow the stadium tour of the famed rock star. One defeat follows another, but, miraculously, she manages to pursue her dreams and discovers the origins of love (also the title of a splendid rock number) somewhere between the crab cakes and cramped motel rooms, between the anguish and the acid-wash.

Interspersed throughout the episodic, but not disjointed, narrative are wonderfully vibrant songs by composer and lyricist Stephen Trask, who deserves equal credit to Mitchell in turning the risky material into an accessible and enjoyable experience. Not always successful are the insertions of Emily Hubley’s animation scenes, shown onscreen, often for the duration of a whole song.

It’s a rare occasion for a stylized musical to integrates effectively its political context and subtext into the proceedings-Bob Fosse’s Cabaret is a successful example–but Hedwig shows through newsreel footage and fictional reenactments the meaning of growing up in Communist East Germany during the Cold War, the devastating effects of the Wall, the fascination of a young boy with American pop culture, spending most of his time with his head in the oven listening to the American Forces Radio.

Technically, Hedwig boasts a brilliant production. The various settings, both indoors and outdoors, come to vivid, colorful life courtesy of Frank G. DeMarco’s lensing, Therese DePrez’ design, and above all Arianne Phillips’ costumes and Mike Potter’s hair and make-up design.

Hedwig may not have the infectious exuberance and upbeat energy of The Rocky Horror Show, made in the 1970s but still shown all over the world, but it’s a strong contender for becoming a midnight item for more sophisticated and edgy viewers.