Originally Written and Posted at Epinions.com on 4/9/04 w/ Additional Edits.
Musicals have always been a genre people either love or hate, even if it’s in Broadway. While recently, Chicago brought the musical back into the silver screen after winning Best Picture. The musical is still a genre some have a hard time to swallow. For some people, the rock opera has always been a great alternative since the music isn’t just more accessible but there’s also something refreshing. One example of that is an off-Broadway play called Hedwig & the Angry Inch about an East German transsexual rock star trying to gain exposure while suing his protege for plagiarism. The cult success of the glam-inspired play by John Cameron Mitchell with music by Stephen Trask gave the play’s creators a chance to turn into a film of the same named as it was released at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival to widespread acclaim.
Written, directed, and starring John Cameron Mitchell in the role of Hedwig of Hedwig & the Angry Inch, the film is about a young East German man who becomes a woman after a botched sex change operation as he desires to become a rock star only to be in the shadow of his protege while being at odds with his new one. The film is filled with mindless comedy, intense drama, and ass-kicking songs of love and rock n’ roll with music by the film’s original composer Stephen Trask, who plays a role as a member of the Angry Inch. With a cast that includes Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Alberta Watson, and original member of the play Miriam Shor. Hedwig & the Angry Inch is one of the most spectacular, dizzying musicals from John Cameron Mitchell..
The music world is in a clamor as millions of teens are in awe of a new rock star. The songs of ambiguity and love are adored by millions as the individual is become a favorite with the industry, MTV, and teenyboppers. Unfortunately, it’s not Hedwig as he watches his own protege Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt) becoming the rocker he wants to be. With Gnosis embarking on a tour of the U.S., Hedwig and his band, the Angry Inch that consists of European immigrants along with new bearded-woman protege Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), decided to follow Tommy on tour with manager Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin) as Hedwig is suing Tommy for plagiarism since the songs were really done by Hedwig. The transsexual rocker talks about his suit and Tommy as he tours restaurants across the venues Tommy is playing while a devoted following of Hedheads are following him with each show.
For Yitzhak, her relationship with Hedwig is starting to disintegrate as Hedwig still has feelings for Tommy while Hedwig and the band scrape by to play gigs. Hedwig tells stories of his life on how he as a child named Hansel (Ben Mayer-Goodman) is born in West Germany during the building of the Berlin Wall as his mother Hedwig (Alberta Watson) moves to East Berlin to work in the Communist area. Without a father and living in a small apartment, Hedwig would be influenced by the American music he heard in U.S. Air Forces radio that played soft-rockers like Debby Boone, Toni Tenille, and Anne Murray to the crypto-homo rockers of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie. By the time he got older and was sunbathing, Hansel then meets up with a U.S. army sergeant named Luther (Maurice Dean Wint) who gives him colorful gummy bears and decides to marry him but in order to do that and go to America. His mother gives him her name and a sex change operation that leads to a chaotic song where Hedwig and the Angry Inch plus Hedheads and Phyllis embark on a brawl.
Hedwig recalls his arrival to Junction City, Kansas as Luther leaves him for another dude with Hedwig taking his fate in song. At this point with Luther gone, Hedwig scrapes buy with baby-sitting gigs to form his band filled with Korean housewives as he meets with a Jesus-freak boy named Tommy. Tommy falls for Hedwig as Hedwig takes him under his wing as they write songs, give him his name Tommy Gnosis and teach him about rock n’ roll. Soon, they were outselling monster trucks in Wichita as Tommy struggles to leave his conservative parents as he and Hedwig fall for each until Tommy discovers something that leaves out something cold and in response, the betrayal. Hedwig continually tries to confront Tommy later on as he became famous while Yitzhak, she decides to leave the group to join the play Rent as Hedwig finally meets him, they get into trouble and Hedwig finally becomes the star he’s wanted but at a huge price.
While turning a play into a film is pretty hard to do, thankfully since it was John Cameron Mitchell’s play, he manages to do a successful transition. In keeping with the stage-like tone of the original play, Mitchell brings in a film that isn’t just funny and dramatic but entertaining to watch in his direction and screenplay. Even the film’s pop culture references and animations along with Frank G. DeMarco’s colorful cinematography give life to the original play as the film plays out as something fun and outrageous. Mitchell doesn’t even try to play it safe as far as sexuality is concerned while belting out hilarious props including a penis wearing a pope’s hat, which is filled with ambiguity and comedy. In some cases, the film definitely has a lot of glam rock references, including the end, notably its biggest influence is obviously David Bowie and his Ziggy Stardust character. There are some elements of Ziggy in the film as Bowie himself, receives a special thanks credit as the rock legend often praised the play and film for years.
The film’s music by Stephen Trask is clearly one of the best musicals and scores ever written. It’s dreamy, evocative score gives out to the film’s cinematic, emotional tone while the music is diverse in its campiest and attitude. From its ballad The Origin of Love to fun rock songs like Sugar Daddy, Wig In A Box, Wicked Little Town, to the hard-charging “Angry Inch” with its famous chorus of, “Six inches forwards and five inches, I got an angry inch”. The film plays up to the glam rock music of the 1970s in modern fashion with John Cameron Mitchell doing many of the vocals as composer Trask sings the versions for Tommy Gnosis. If Hedwig & the Angry Inch were real, they’d probably have a few masterpieces out right now.
While the film’s ensemble cast that has a group of small but fine performances, even the actors playing Hedwig’s band the Angry Inch, the most well known is Rob Campbell of Boys Don’t Cry and The Photographer, are fun to watch in their roles. Alberta Watson is excellent as Hedwig’s scornful but caring mother as she often throws tomatoes at him for singing Lou Reed or dancing on the bed to rock n’ roll as she is fun to watch. Maurice Dean Wint is even more hilarious as the sultry Luther with his soul-deep voice and seductive look as he plays up to the fantasy of every gay man. Andrea Martin is funny as the manager that is filled with many cliches that are outshined by Martin’s comedic talents. Miriam Shor is awesome as the scorned lover Yitzhak as she tries not to be in Hedwig’s band, as she desires to be pretty and be the leader while being the only person standing up to Hedwig’s demands. Michael Pitt is amazing as the boyish-looking Tommy Gnosis as he starts out innocently while portraying that sad look perfectly as the glossy, Marilyn Manson-wannabe rocker as he looks great on screen.
The star of the film John Cameron Mitchell as the title character of Hedwig delivers an exhilarating performance as the transsexual rocker. Mitchell brings in not just elements of camp into his film while not afraid to parody all sorts of rock star behaviors. In the film’s funnier moments, he just shines, as he likes to shock and play around in his German accent. In the dramatic scenes, he doesn’t act like the troubled, despair figure of most rockers as he restrains himself from being emotional. Mitchell is Hedwig and there’ll probably never be another character as great as that.
While fans of traditional musicals might not like the glam-rock tone or camp of Hedwig & the Angry Inch, rock fans though will enjoy because of its music and subversive comedy tactics. With great performances from Pitt, Shor, and the film’s creator John Cameron Mitchell, it’s a film that is filled with laughs and musical moments that will make you sing along. Go put on some makeup, get a blond wig, and a dress and get ready to sing some great songs and be a punk rock star in Hedwig & the Angry Inch.
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