Warning: The term “rock opera” will be used in this column to describe Hedwig and the Angry Inch. Readers are implored not to tune out immediately.
Not that anyone could blame you if you did. Few expressions conjure up a more vivid picture of ’70s artistic bombast, inspiring flashbacks of self-important spectacles like Hair, Tommy and Pink Floyd The Wall. Like its dinosaur cousin the “concept album,” rock opera tended to embody everything that could go wrong when pop music took itself way too seriously.
There was, of course, one noteworthy exception to those “Me Decade” downers: the free-form freak-out that was The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Beginning with the stage incarnation The Rocky Horror Show, composer Richard O’Brien harnessed rock’s anarchic rebel energy and the power of the hook to create a cult phenomenon that has survived for a quarter of a century. To hell with deaf, dumb and blind kids or suicidal rock stars—we wanted to sing along with a sweet transvestite.
Maybe there’s something about the inherently subversive qualities of cross-dressing that strips away the gloom from rock opera, but Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the closest thing to Rocky Horror American cinema has produced in 25 years. It’s ferocious, infectious and more fun than you should be allowed to have at the expense of a character who has suffered the unkindest cut.
Our hero(ine) Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) is born Hansel Schmidt in Cold War-era East Germany, and grows up infatuated with the glamorous rock & roll world of the West. Desperate to escape to that world, Hedwig becomes the lover of an American serviceman who promises to take him away as his “wife.” The catch is that Hedwig will have to undergo a sex change operation, which, thanks to the wonders of East German surgical skill, leaves Hedwig somewhat betwixt and between with an “angry inch” of her former manhood remaining.
Our gal Hedwig does get a chance to play in an American rock & roll band—but don’t even get her started on why the band generally plays chain restaurants, while her protégé-turned-superstar Tommy Gnosis (William Pitt) headlines nearby arenas. Hedwig and the Angry Inch eventually comes to focus on the relationship between Hedwig and Tommy, one Hedwig claims ended with Tommy stealing Hedwig’s songs. Hedwig bitterly relates her life story through song and reminiscence, in performances for audiences listening between trips to the all-you-can-eat buffet.
And great God Almighty, what performances they are. Mitchell (who also wrote and directed Hedwig) originated the title role off-Broadway, and you may spend most of the film desperately wishing you could have seen Hedwig live. That’s no knock on Mitchell’s on-screen performance. In fact, Mitchell and his versatile, expressive voice tear into the film’s songs with such intensity it’s hard to believe he’s not playing for a live audience—and it only makes the idea of being part of that audience more appealing. Mitchell delivers the story’s spoken narrative with an alternately saucy and deadpan flair—equal parts Cabaret Emcee and Mike Myers-as-Dieter—but he comes most fully to life during the songs. If ever a film called for the sensory effect of sweat flying off the screen, this one is it.
Of course, with material like this, it’s easy to look good. Hedwig’s soundtrack comes courtesy of composer Stephen Trask, who has created a collection of tunes genetically altered to attach themselves to your backbrain and never let go. Trask sprints from genre to genre, supplying Hedwig with a repertoire of Bowie-style glam (”The Origin of Love”), twangy country (“Sugar Daddy”), pure bubble-gum pop (“Wig in a Box”) and driving punk (“Angry Inch,” with its brilliant chorus of “Six inches forward, five inches back”). As a sing-along, hum-along, can’t-stop-tapping-your-feet-along musical experience, Hedwig and the Angry Inch never fails to surprise. It’s no wonder Hedwig and her band haven’t managed to find mainstream success—with a sound so impossible to pigeonhole, radio programmers wouldn’t have a clue what to do with her.
Unlike Rocky Horror, Hedwig does try to tell a character-based story, which isn’t necessarily the wisest move. Though there’s pathos in the tale of Hedwig’s life in gender limbo, the film plays the character for laughs too often to make her genuinely tragic. By the time Hedwig builds to the big confrontations between Hedwig and Tommy, it feels as though Mitchell is fishing for an emotional payoff he hasn’t quite earned. He can’t exactly have his Frank N. Furter, then get us to cry when he cuts it off, too.
If you stop too long to think about Hedwig and the Angry Inch, it might reveal itself to be a fairly clumsy drama. But Mitchell and Trask aren’t about to let you stop and think, certainly not while you’re in the middle of the film. For a stage adaptation, Hedwig boasts cinematic visual creativity to burn, mixing animation and follow-the-bouncing-ball lyrics with more conventional performance scenes. Mitchell churns forward with the instincts of a born crowd-pleaser, dropping another ridiculously catchy song in your lap every time you might get the least bit restless.
With the release of Moulin Rouge earlier this summer, there seems to be something in the air when it comes to turning pop music into entertaining grand theater. Hedwig and the Angry Inch, even when it stops occasionally to ponder, seems to understand that rock opera doesn’t have to be ponderous. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask use contemporary music to let us do the time warp again.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (R) HHH1/2 Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Starring John Cameron Mitchell, William Pitt and Miriam Shor.