Hedwig and the Angry Inch

“An anatomically incorrect rock odyssey” is how the ads describe Hedwig and the Angry Inch, a gender-bending, rip-snorting psychodramedy with the sound of glam and the soul of punk. John Cameron Mitchell, the heretofore-obscure character actor who wrote and directed Hedwig and plays the titular diva, first breathed life into Hedwig in various gay clubs, working out a stage persona he would then translate into an off-Broadway rock musical. Hedwig, born Hansel in East Berlin, begins as a young gay man devoutly wishing to flee to America. He meets an American sergeant; they fall in love, but the sergeant can’t leave the country with Hansel unless they’re married, and they can’t get married unless Hansel gets a sex change. After that — well, let the lyrics tell it: “My sex change operation got botched/My guardian angel fell asleep on the watch/Now all I’ve got is a Barbie-doll crotch/I’ve got an angry inch.”

Hedwig is not the story of a true transgendered woman; Hansel seemed comfortable in his skin as a gay man, and did not feel as if he’d been born female in a male shell. What Hansel becomes is a person with a king-hell identity crisis, a neither-nor: neither man nor woman, neither phallic nor vaginal. Hedwig represents the split between genders, a loud wedge driven between them, and Emily Hubley’s trippy flights of animation (Mitchell uses Hubley much the same way Alan Parker used Gerald Scarfe in Pink Floyd — The Wall) point up Hedwig’s essential dividedness. Hedwig even writes a song accounting for herself — “The Origin of Love,” a beautiful ballad drawing on Plato’s Symposium to tell the story of bi-gendered people split asunder by Zeus. The song is a big hit, but unfortunately it’s not a big hit for Hedwig — it’s been stolen by Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a trailer-trash kid Hedwig once took under her wing and taught how to rock. Now Tommy is a rock star, and Hedwig and her motley band follow Tommy all over the country, playing mostly-ignored gigs at Bilgewater’s restaurants while Tommy sells out arenas nearby.

The movie tracks Hedwig’s bitter attempts to confront Tommy and get her due acknowledgment while dealing with growing rumbles of mutiny in the band: her guitarist Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), for instance, yearns to be female and ditch the band to try out for a role in Rent. Mitchell keeps this short movie dense and lively, skipping back and forth, slapping any number of extravagant wigs and costumes onto Hedwig, and paying homage to every rock icon from Bowie and Iggy to Lou Reed and Johnny Rotten. The movie occasionally wallows in Hedwig’s angst, but Mitchell is too much the entertainer to bum us out for long; Hedwig’s mournful “Wig in a Box” becomes a giddy sing-along (complete with a bouncing ball surfing over the lyrics), which in turn becomes a punk-rock anthem of empowerment. Anyone who has ever felt discarded, disenfranchised, or just plain dissed will find in Hedwig a lot to hook into.

A phenomenal performer with the prerequisite gay-show-biz sense of irony, Mitchell imbues Hedwig with irrefutable charm even when she’s being heartless. Aside from his tantrummy blasts onstage (or his sidesteps into lascivious almost-country, as in the hilarious “Sugar Daddy”), Mitchell’s finest moments are his quietest, mostly with the recessive Michael Pitt when Hedwig and Tommy are still together. The bit when Hedwig first does Tommy’s makeup while rain patters on the trailer roof is both warming and soothing, and Mitchell has a heartbreaking moment when Tommy accidentally gropes Hedwig and asks what that is between her legs; she says softly, “It’s what I have to work with.” Mitchell also has solid rapport with SCTV alumna Andrea Martin in her best role in too many years, as Hedwig’s amusingly named manager Phyllis Stein.

Hedwig is like a great album with colorful visuals. I own both the original stage recording and the movie soundtrack, and the music works beautifully on its own, like the songs in The Rocky Horror Picture Show (by the way, just because both films have stage origins, rock music and a guy in drag doesn’t mean we need to compare Hedwig with Rocky Horror at every opportunity; aside from those superficial likenesses, and the fact that Hedwig the live show has spawned “Hed-Heads” at least as enthusiastic as the Rocky Horror fans, the movies couldn’t be more different in terms of story and tone). By the end, when Hedwig is stripped of her shell and learns to accept who she/he is — the sublimely Bowie-like “Midnight Radio” puts a seal on this final transformation — Mitchell’s vision comes to fruition. It’s been fun, but eventually we have to deal with the person in the mirror, and work with what we have. 5

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