Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) ***
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Written for the screen by Mr. Mitchell, based on his staged musical. Photography, Frank G. DeMarco. Editing, Andrew Marcus. Music and lyrics by Stephen Trask. Production design, Therese DePrez. Animation, Emily Hubley. Produced by Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel and Pamela Koffler. Cast: John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig), Andrea Martin (Phyllis Stein), Michael Pitt (Tommy Gnosis), Alberta Watson (Hansel's Mom), Stephen Trask (Skszp), Rob Campbell (Krzysztof), Theodore Liscinski (Jacek), Michael Aronov (Schlatko), Miriam Shor (Yitzhak) and Maurice Dean Wint (Sgt. Luther Robinson). A Fine Line release. 95 minutes. R (language, sex)
Shouldn't this movie be dedicated to the late Christine Jorgensen? In 1952 she became a household name after going public with the news that she had been former G.I. George Jorgensen, and was the first person to have a sex-change operation that fully succeeded.
How many transsexuals there are in the world today is unknown, but surely they are very few when compared to people who make bad movies. "Hedwig" is not one of the latter. In fact it is an original and interesting work.
The film is adapted from an off-Broadway hit by John Cameron Mitchell, who also played Hedwig, the protagonist. Both versions are, per Mitchell "post-punk. neo-glam musicals," glam-rock having had its heyday in the 1970s.
Hedwig is a woman's name. That name belonged to a character in Ibsen's "The Wild Duck" --but I have not made a connection yet, if any. Hedwig, formerly Hansel was born in East Berlin, the son of an American G.I. and a German woman. He was gay, but whether or not practicing is one of the several cloudy parts of the story that we see and hear.
Pretty boy Hansel's first (?) lover was Sergeant Luther, of the U.S Army. They decide to marry and go to the States. This is done with the help of the boy's mother's doctored up passport, sex-change surgery, and the adoption of the name Hedwig. Details are sparse, except that the operation was botched and left a most unhappy Hedwig with a small remnant of his erstwhile male member.
She and husband Luther make it to America, but at a Kansas trailer-park he dumps her for a pretty boy. Hedwig then became a hooker, a babysitter (including working for an American General whose teen-aged son was Tommy) and had other enriching experiences.
As Hansel, he always loved music. As Hedwig, she becomes a rock singer. Eventually she forms the rock group "The Angry Inch" a name that reflects her obsession with her bewildering sexuality. In her earlier rock career, and at a performance in a near-empty cafe, she is backed up by Korean Army wives (quite funny). There she connects with a rather pudgy young man who plays the guitar, has musical ambitions, and is also a Jesus freak. (He disapproved of God because He "micro-managed Adam and Eve!) The boy is, believe it or not, Tommy (see above.) But in the typically disconnected fashion of the story, the meeting seems to be something new, sort of a "together again for the first time" thing. So it seemed to me, but I could be wrong. Please, do not e-mail me corrections and information.
The two form a partnership. Rock-musically-proficient Hedwig teaches Tommy a great deal. She also finds him a stage name, Tommy Gnosis (from the Greek word for "knowledge") Clearly she has Kultur. But later he dumps her and becomes a celebrity -- all this with songs that he stole from Hedwig.
By contrast, she and her group are in rock's Poverty Row. But they persist, and what's more they stalk Tommy's gigs. Wherever he has an engagement, the "Angry Inch" group also performs... at the Bilgewater chain of restaurants, eateries whose clientele is at best older and lower middle-class.
For someone who dislikes revealing plots, I am giving you a lot of information. But then, there is no true plot to this tale. And all I've said is really a chronological reconstruction, since everything is fragmented, non-linear, with flashbacks and zig-zagging presentations. It is almost surrealistic. The thread here is Hedwig's physical as well as internal safari in search of her sexual identity. Her songs are good, their lyrics are often very funny. They are also like an anthology of visual and musical gags and references to past pop performers and styles.
Hedwig, in speech and singing, explores the nature of sex, with references to Plato, Aristotle, perhaps Freud, and "tutti quanti." The film innovates non-stop, includes several good, imaginative interludes (animations by Emily Hubley,) a sing-along item, and much else. Do note that Yitzhak is played by a woman (Miriam Shor)
Mr. Mitchell delivers over-the-top-of-the-top performances, of which there is a cornucopia. Another cornucopia is that of factual impossibilities--take them or leave them. Paramount among them is the absurdist fact of having G.I.s (Hansel's father, Hedwig's lover) in the GDR, the former East Germany, in which there were no American military of course!
What we have here essentially is a kind of sequel of, and certainly an improvement on "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." In a sense this is a concert movie around a sung autobiography which stresses Hedwig's "angst" and self-searching. It's done with Brechtian distanciation.
This work could well become a cult item among younger audiences. Setting aside matters of age, generations and musical preferences, the clientele's touchstone will be one's like, dislike or indifference for the old "Rocky."