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Review by Peter Vidito
Film Opens July 20


Writer, director, actor and auteur extraordinaire John Cameron Mitchell uses gooey brushstrokes of rock and roll theatricality, sleaze and glitter to bring Hedwig, the eponymous Teutonic chanteuse of his hit off-Broadway musical, to celluloid. One of the most memorable screen creations to emerge in years, our heroine Hedwig is nothing short of a Leviathan of the camp tradition, embodying every strain of femininity found in our pop culture, a spectacular gumbo of Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Holly Woodlawn and David Bowie. The story of a lovelorn, misunderstood shemale trying to find her place in the world, Hedwig is more than an allegory of sexual identity: it is a triumph of tragedy on par with the best of Fassbinder, compassionately giving voice to human beings consigned to the fringes of society who desperately seek (and consistently miss) affection, belonging and understanding.

Born a bastard on the wrong side of the Berlin Wall and smothered by a poisonous maternal bitterness towards love, Hedwig grows up retreating to the only privacy available in his family's drab proletarian flat: the oven, where he fashions a makeshift escape pod into the glittery fantasy world offered by pop stars like Abba and Captain & Tenille. A rambunctious boundary-tester empowered by the American radio in the ether, the lad insane begins to question his own completeness and acknowledges a nagging feeling that he is fundamentally different from everyone else, one whose alienation and alien-ness must portent some future greatness. Hedwig soon grows into a gorgeous sylph and eventually connects with a smooth talkin' American GI, a man who wastes no time providing his new girl with a botched sex-change operation (leaving her with the titular badge of otherness) and hauling the blushing bride back to an American army base.

The day before the Berlin Wall falls, however, Hedwig's Prince Charming abandons her for a fresher piece of trade, leaving her to fend for herself in the most alien landscape of all, an isolated trailer park on the outskirts of Kansas (Judy Garland, white courtesy phone, please). It is here that she begins her transition into an "internationally ignored" pop sensation by performing originals with a group of Korean army wives in between her babysitting gigs. On one sortie she meets Tommy, the wispy, young-dumb-fulll-of-cum (literally) Jesus-freak son of the base general who, as the distilled essence of virginal adolescent androgyny, serves as Hedwig's muse and protege. Hedwig soon plays Svengali to the innocent--who strongly evokes moon-faced Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan—and quickly introduces him to the liberation, fantasy and depravity of rock and roll, culminating in his Christening as "Tommy Gnosis." In this spiritual cipher, Hedwig believes she has found her "other half," a theme which serves as the film's center. Before you can say I'm just a jeepster for your love, Tommy abandons his lover and goes and gets hisself sum good ol' Rock Superstardom™ on the heft of Hedwig's brilliant songs.

Like any smart tranny glamrocker would, Hedwig enslists the aid of manager Andrea Martin (!) and shadows the Gnosis tour with a motley band of Slavic misfits named The Angry Inch (who recall Aki Kaurismaki's bizarre Leningrad Cowboys) in a bid to reunite with her runaway love, or at least reap some degree of reward for his ill-gotten multiplatinum sales. As the tragic heroine, however, Hedwig always manages to remain one step behind her prey and is relegated to playing out on the periphery of Tommy's celebrity. Mitchell reinforces the idea of Hedwig's marginalization through some devastatingly bittersweet gags; in one scene, Hedwig plays a gig on remote stage number nine (out near the porta-potties) at the all-womyn "Menses Festival" to a crowd of precisely one fellow outcast whom Hedwig touchingly invites onto the stage to share in the music. For each arena that Tommy plays, The Inch wreck shop across the street at the local Bilgewater's, a bleak chain of tacky family restaurants. It is here among the naugahyde booths and salad bar sneeze guards that Hedwig unleashes her potent and razor-sharp anthems on a confused and captive audience with enough swagger and dirty glam to make Johnny Thunders smile from on high.

The film's core is weighty, exploring the basic question of whether humans need to be defined and validated by others (here manifested through the notion of stardom) or whether we are intrinsically incomplete freaks/punks/space oddities who are destined to find happiness elusive in a solitary life. The curses that befall those who are different--lonliness, confusion, isolation--is Mitchell's dead-serious conceit which his astonishing musical numbers and whimsical animation sequences (courtesy of illustrator Emily Hubley) deliver with joyous abandon. We are treated to a cadre of singular characters, most notably Michael Pitt's naïve and alluring Tommy and Miriam Schorr as the incomparable Yitzhak, Hedwig's replacement lover who, with her faux masculine swagger and feminine cheekbones obscured by a wispy, hormone-fueled scruff of beard, would be labeled by some wags (accurately, perhaps) as a "shim."

Ironic dazzle is applied in great gouts, much like Baz Luhrmann's tactical visual overload does in Moulin Rouge, as Mitchell offsets an achingly human story with a brash theatrical language of fright wigs, Vivienne Westwood trashwear and the spectacular melodrama of rock opera. His technique succeeds because it never lets these exaggerations become anything less than perfectly human; she may be a monstrosity to those with a conventional view of gender, but Mitchell defies the audience to not feel for Yitzhak as s/he pines to be something more than merely Hedwig's backup singer, plaything and abuse recepticle.

Mitchell and musical partner Steven Trask create a whirlpool of witty and bracing anthems that fly fast and furious across the screen which, as with all great musical theater, break up the action and serve as commentary & counterpoint. Songs like "Angry Inch" are grade-A stungun punk rock as propulsive and fuck-you affirming as anything from the Dolls or the Pistols, while ballads like "Origin Of Love" pack sincere but never cloying pathos that Freddie Mercury would have been proud of. Not only are the theatrical modes of fantasy, role-playing and communal release ironically sent up throughout, theater itself takes a self-reflexive ribbing: one subplot features Yitzhak's desire to run away and join a nautical touring company of "Rent."

Mitchell's first-time-out direction is imaginative and breathtakingly supple, the work of a greenhorn unsaddled by convention or limitation and able to tell a story in the precise terms forged by hundreds of live performances. Frank DeMarco's camerawork and flair for arresting imagery—an image of Hedwig holding court on a mountain of discarded car tires is one for the film books—lets color and movement riot throughout, each carefully-designed shot harnessing all available energy into sequences packed with layers of information and don't-blink-or-you'll-miss-it jokes. The film trucks along at a breathless clip building dense exchanges of dialogue and movement into every scene, gracefully sliding the diegesis from real time to flashback to crosscut action and, like the best of Minelli/Fosse/Donen, moving effortlessly into and out of the choruses.

While it took the Rocky Horror Picture Show—the movie's obvious source code—a few years to pick up steam as a piece of cult lore, Hedwig comes out of the starting gate an instant classic, tapping into a post-90s zeitgeist drooling for the long-dormant liberation that musical theater affords. The film practically rolls out the red carpet for its audience to become active participants in the performance with an interlude that directly invites viewers to sing along, a trope that goads you to climb over that ol' Berlin Wall of subjectivity/objectivity the same Brechtian way that punk rock did in decimating the gulf between stage and dancefloor a generation ago. Anarchic, cheeky, exhilarating, prickly, audacious...go ahead and choose your own adjectives, because Hedwig And The Angry Inch covers just almost every base imaginable and in doing so leaves us with a rewarding trip into a sui generis world filled with human spirit and astonishing dignity. It will rock your motherfuckin' socks off, too.

 

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