movie review by
David Ng


(© 2001 Fine Line Features. All rights reserved.)

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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Hedwig, the transsexual heroine of John Cameron Mitchell’s movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch, is what we might call a freak. Technically speaking, she is neither male nor female: a botched sex change operation in her teens has left her with one inch of what used to be her male member. Now in her thirties, Hedwig is the lead singer of her band The Angry Inch. Belting out ballads about love and loss, and decked out in a towering blond wig and garish make-up, Hedwig is a walking, singing monstrosity. She, like her music, can be audacious and intelligent. But that same audacity, when not channeled through her songs, can also act like an emotional defense towards others and towards us, the audience. Hedwig may be a beautifully expressive songwriter, but when the music stops, her bitchy self-mockery, and more problematically, her inability to show pain prevent her from becoming completely human.

Hedwig is played by Mitchell, who also directed and adapted his long-running grunge musical for the screen. His talent as a director lies chiefly in making highly improbable situations feel reassuringly normal, and at times, funny. In a flashback scene set in her native East Berlin, Hedwig (then a young boy named Hansel) lives with his single mother (Alberta Watson). Because their apartment is so small, young Hansel must sleep in the oven. Lying stomach-down on the oven rack, Hansel becomes Hedwig before our eyes (thanks to some nifty editing by Andrew Marcus) and muses wistfully about parental rejection. His mother, sick of the British glam rock Hansel listens to, occasionally lobs tomatoes in his direction.

How is Hedwig affected by this early childhood abuse? The extent of her inner trauma remains unclear throughout the movie. The major events in her life are rendered on screen like sketch comedy. Are we supposed to laugh when the teenaged Hansel is forced by his American sugar daddy to undergo a sex change operation? Or when Hansel, now Hedwig, is unceremoniously dumped by her husband and left to fend for herself in a Midwestern trailer-park? The movie, with its hyperactive storytelling and visual winks to the audience, doesn’t settle down long enough to decide.

What Mitchell fails to build in terms of pathos he makes up for with comedy, and the movie contains more than its share of withering one-liners. "When I think of all the people I’ve come across in life," Hedwig tells her audience, "I think of all of those who’ve come upon me." Hedwig’s sense of humor certainly makes us like her more than we should. Her dubious sense of propriety reaches its nadir when, having reluctantly taken a job as a nanny, she administers a hand-job to the adolescent boy in her care. The boy, Tommy (Michael Pitt), is a hillbilly Jesus freak who also wants to be a rock star. They start writing songs together, though it is Hedwig who does most of the writing while Tommy cultivates his new image as goth rocker "Tommy Gnosis." Hedwig falls hard for Tommy whose callowness prevents him from seeing past Hedwig’s deformity. The two have a campy love scene set to Whitney Houston’s "I Will Always Love You." In the heat of the moment, Tommy asks "Does love last forever?" To which Hedwig replies, "No. But this song does."

Inured to rejection in all of its forms, Hedwig willfully seeks out humiliation, both public and private. Her stormy relationship with Tommy, as told in a series of flashbacks, becomes increasingly masochistic as Tommy persists in denying her anatomical irregularity. "Love the front of me," Hedwig tells Tommy, who prefers to make love from behind. When Tommy, on the verge of adulthood and fearing that he may be homosexual, abandons her, stealing her songs to become a multimillion dollar goth icon, Hedwig stalks him relentlessly, arranging for her band to play in the same cities, always just down the road from Tommy’s sold-out performances. Hedwig’s performance venues are Denny’s-style restaurants where her flamboyant performances are met with disapproving stares from the middle-aged clientele. Even at the annual Menses Fair (a send-up of Lilith Fair), Hedwig and her band are banished to the ninth stage, near the perimeter of port-a-pots. The production design by Therese Deprez in these scenes alternates between corporate kitsch and thrift-store chic. Hedwig’s world is an outcast’s sanctuary: a barren rock where social detritus is retrieved and nurtured.

Deep down, however, Hedwig is really on a quest to find her other half -- her soulmate -- as expressed in the movie’s central song "The Origins of Love." More rock odyssey than rock opera, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is filled with angry, brilliantly written songs that, ironically, evoke ancient mythology to spell out the movie’s ultra-modern psychology. Written and scored by Stephen Trask, the songs act like dream states in which characters and emotions disengage from each other and then float freely in a haze of hurt and loneliness. At these moments, the movie becomes something altogether different by using animation sequences to visualize Hedwig’s deeply internal (and deeply repressed) insecurities about her body and her need to love someone else. In "The Origins of Love" Hedwig sings about a time when humans were joined physically like Siamese twins, until the gods decided to split us into two The animation depicts this antediluvian event in child-like pastel drawings, as if the young Hansel were somehow channeling his thoughts through the older Hedwig.

Early reviews of Hedwig and the Angry Inch justly praised the movie’s songs. They are indeed the heart and soul of the movie. They give it emotional weight, stripping Hedwig of her many emotional defenses and giving her a pulpit from which to tear into life’s injustices. But because the songs are so emotionally honest, the rest of the movie feels by comparison like a bit of a scam. Supporting characters, who were unseen in the stage version, are squeezed in when time and space allow. Hedwig’s manager, Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin), is the band’s surrogate mother who, when not dealing with Hedwig’s prima donna outbursts, is corralling the rest of the band from one flea bag motel to another. Hedwig’s principal guitarist Yitzak (played in drag by actress Miriam Shor) is also her on-again off-again boyfriend. Neither Phyllis nor Yitzak, not to mention the other faceless members of the band, gets much screen time. When they both ultimately leave Hedwig, we know all too well their frustration.

By the movie’s end, a freak turn of events enables Hedwig to avenge her wronged career and to destroy Tommy’s. None of this registers emotionally since Hedwig has really done nothing to deserve it. In the final scene, when we see her take off her wig and her clothes for the first time, we can hear Mitchell telling us in his overly theatrical way that Hedwig has finally become human. And though we can plainly see it, as she stands before us, a naked man, it is difficult for us to believe. Hedwig puts on Tommy’s clothes and his make-up, and before our eyes becomes Tommy Gnosis. What does this role reversal mean? Is Tommy, the boy who nearly destroyed her life, really her other half? Who can say? This man standing in front of us is little more than a stranger, an imposter. Give us back Hedwig in full, glorious drag. We were just beginning to know her.

[rating: 2½ of 4 stars]