Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)


(director/writer: John Cameron Mitchell; screenwriter: from a play by John Cameron Mitchell; cinematographer: Frank G. DeMarco; editor: Andrew Marcus; 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 (Yit zhak), Maurice Dean Wint (Sgt. Luther Robinson); Runtime: 95; Fine Line Features; 2000)

“A deliciously innovative and refreshing glam rock musical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A deliciously innovative and refreshing glam rock musical about a drag queen from East Berlin, based on the hit off-Broadway show that ran in New York from 1998-2000. It was produced on the low-budget of $6 million. If you don’t think that was low, then compare it with this year’s other musical “Moulin Rouge” and its $50 million budget.

It’s the strange odyssey of a gay man who became a transvestite, Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell). It’s about his ups and downs and how this outlandish character, certainly someone with a much different lifestyle than most in the audience, can win an audience over to his side. It was a poetically touching film, one that was more complex than what might have been thought from a work that calls itself a “post-punk, neo-glam rock musical.” It was no easy task to make Hedwig a sympathetic figure, someone who sings about finding love as a transvestite and is obsessed with his sex-change operation; but, this colorful production is very energetic and electrifying, offering the style of music that is similar to pop culture icons Iggy Pop, David Bowie, and Lou Reed.

Its main theme song is an interesting one: “The Origin of Love,” derived from Plato’s theory that human beings – having been split in two by the angry gods – are in constant search for their other halves. The song becomes Hedwig’s rather unique theory of the evolution of human sexuality from a transsexual perspective. You can take it or leave it, but there it is to be heard as the cry of one voice telling of his own madness. I thought it was wonderfully vibrant, a chance to know about someone most of us will never meet either in life or through other films.

Hedwig is born as a boy called Hansel whose life’s dream is to find his other half. He is the child of an East Berlin mother (Watson) and an American G.I. father who sexually abuses him. Stuck in this depressing part of Germany and in a claustrophobic apartment, his mother tells him to play in the oven. The child finds a release from his misery by dancing to American ‘rock and roll’ heard on Armed Forces Radio, where he becomes exuberant over such artists as Toni Tennille and Debby Boone. When he’s a young adult of college age, he meets a black G.I. who offers him candy and sex. He reluctantly undergoes a sex-change operation to consummate this marriage–which will get him out of the dreaded environment of East Berlin. But the operation is botched and he’s left with a mound of flesh that measures one-inch where his male organ should have been –thus the film’s title. After moving to a Kansas trailer-park, Hedwig’s husband deserts him for another pretty young male lover.

Hedwig reinvents himself as a rock singer, and is seen on an unsuccessful tour in the Bilgewater chain of restaurants as arranged by his nervous manager Phyllis Stein (Andrea Martin). His band, named Hedwig and the Angry Inch, sings to an unappreciative low-brow audience that can’t relate to him as he sings about his life, the Berlin Wall, his philosophy, and the love he has. An example of the lyrics he treats them to is “I rose from off of the doctor’s slab/Like Lazarus from the pit/Now everyone wants to take a stab/And desecrate me with blood, graffiti and spit.”

Hedwig is also stalking a former teen-aged protege for the purposes of a law suit, who is a would-be Jesus freak who disavows God because he “micro-managed Adam and Eve.” He teamed up with this shallow son of an American general, even giving him his stage name, Tommy Gnossis (Pitt). But Tommy, a friendly Judas with a grey cross painted on his forehead, deserted him and stole the music he wrote–becoming a wealthy super-star from those songs inspired by their unfulfilled love.

Meanwhile, the band’s co-vocalist and his current sex partner, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor), a female playing a male character who would rather be a drag queen, is having trouble relating with Hedwig’s abusive behavior and is thinking of splitting from the band to go on tour overseas with the rock group called Rent.

This is the artful and alluring Mr. Mitchell’s film all the way, as he puts his heart and soul into it both as a singer and an actor. He also wrote the screenplay and made his debut as a director. His rich voice sounds like David Bowie’, using the songs written by Stephen Trask to fill the screen with a parody of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust. He also struts across the stage as a super-star would, dons a multitude of wigs, lovingly shows off gams that are the equal of Betty Grable’s, and captures our attention with his sad and meaningful story. It’s one that calls out for tolerance in a spirited way, as it transcends pop culture and touches on the search the young have to find something in this world to believe in. His search for knowledge leads to trying to find the origin of love and in finding his identity. This is something the film touched on in its teasing way, giving us something to chew over in this unusual tale.

I thought the best line in the film comes when Hedwig’s mother choosing to live in a communist country curtly says: “Jesus died for our sins,” as Hedwig counters “Hitler died for Germany’s sins.”

The film was both amateurish and glossy in a professional sense, but whatever it did–worked; even using many gimmicky filmmaking techniques — including the stunningly gorgeous animated pieces by award-winning artist Emily Hubley.

This is the best transvestite rock musical ever (it got right both the music and the emotional impact of the pain suffered by the star), and it is at least better by an inch than its only other cult film rival “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Though the latter will in all probability still be more popular with a wider audience.


REVIEWED ON 10/3/2001 GRADE: A –