Actor John Cameron Mitchell and songwriter Stephen Trask initially conceived the off-Broadway musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch as a rock opera, to be performed in nightclubs. Mitchell adopted the persona of a transgendered German pop singer named Hedwig, and both Trask's songs and Mitchell's between-song patter related the saga of Hedwig's journey from East Berlin to Junction City, Kansas. In their tale, the wide-eyed Teutonic glam-rock fan immigrates at the pleasure of a lusty American G.I. who pays for Hedwig's sex-change operation -- a botched procedure, as it turns out, that leaves her with a stubborn hunk of flesh between her legs.
The concert version of Hedwig quickly moved into theaters, and though the staging grew more elaborate, the play remained anchored by songs and monologues. So what may be most amazing about Mitchell's achievement in transmuting his stage work into a motion picture is how visually attuned the filmmaking is. Mitchell has directed the film with an emphasis on montage, stringing together meaningful images while reducing the torrent of words through which he previously told the story. Those of us whose only access to the New York theater is what we read about in the Sunday Times will likely be unable to imagine the piece as anything but a film. But then, fans of the play probably believe that it'll never be better anywhere other than onstage. And it's a testament to Trask that the soundtrack to Hedwig -- both the original cast recording and the weirdly out-of-order but better recorded and performed film accessory -- captures the tale's spirit in playful lyrics and vigorously catchy rock music. Perhaps Mitchell and Trask have created an idea, not a narrative, and the idea can't be contained by any one format.
The character of Hedwig has clearly been inspired by -- and is the embodiment of -- the alienation that haunts many of us in this megaplex era, especially homosexuals. Born in a divided city (which she escapes just before the wall comes down), transplanted to a city named after the very concept of a nexus (where she is abandoned when her sugar daddy splits), and stuck in a body that is neither wholly male nor wholly female (which her lover will only approach from behind), Hedwig has an affinity with many worlds but is at home in none. Mitchell's lead performance encapsulates that tentative balance, as he assumes the defiant posture of an underdog and the stung expression of a victim.
The movie opens with a blast of fury, kick-started by the Guns N' Roses-ish anthem "Tear Me Down," performed by Hedwig and her band the Angry Inch at a chain restaurant in Kansas City. The group is on a tour of malls, shadowing the arena tour of a rock star named Tommy Gnosis (played by the Billy Corgan-like Michael Pitt), whose multiplatinum album is made up of songs stolen from Hedwig. The Angry Inch's appearances in middle-class suburban eateries are confrontational, parading in front of the "straight" world the stylized decadence and kinky sexuality that the mainstream has winkingly appropriated from gay subculture.
Trask and Mitchell reference the glam trinity of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, and David Bowie in a procession of show tunes that fill in the characters' backstories while simultaneously expressing more abstract emotions. The movie itself makes a shift toward the abstract, becoming less about what will become of Hedwig and more about the feelings associated with being used, betrayed, and generally unlucky.
That brings Hedwig in line with the recent "new musical" mini-movement in cinema exemplified by Lars Von Trier's simplistic but wrenching Dancer in the Dark and Baz Luhrmann's breathlessly romantic Moulin Rouge and also the new trends in sophisticated musical theater best represented by the idea-saturated and melody-rich work of Adam Guetell. Singing has always been the best way to convey an inner state without the nakedness of under-articulate speech. The musicals of today are moving beyond direct expressions of love and despair, in the case of Hedwig roping in social politics, gender confusion, even the philosophy of Plato. Even if it moves too far beyond conventional narrative to be completely explicit, the music video imagery and memorable songs of Hedwig and the Angry Inch evoke an implicit understanding. You see it, you hear it, you feel it. -- Noel Murray