HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell with John Cameron Mitchell, Michael Pitt, and Andrea Martin runs August 3-16 at Egyptian
THE MARSHALL STACK of nostalgia now carries its reverb even to those ears raised on digital media. Kids who bought The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust on CD and then worked backward to the original vinyl bear a peculiar relation to pop cultural history. So it is with the immensely talented John Cameron Mitchell, who collaborated with composer-lyricist Stephen Trask to create the 1998 off-Broadway show here adapted into a rollicking, funny, near-classic movie musical. Teetering on high heels, Hedwig and the Angry Inch never outruns its origins, nor does it pretend to. Mitchell's film shrewdly reflects the hybrid nature of his androgynous hero(ine), whose botched sex change operation leaves Hedwig (Mitchell) with the titular lump o' flesh and a twofold sense of loss.
"Dontcha know me, Kansas City?" demands the swaggering blonde-wigged performer, but the stunned reaction of diners at the Bilgewater's chain restaurant indicates that their answer would be "Yes and no." In truth, as we learn her life story in stops along her band's desultory national tour, Hedwig is something of a stranger to herself. Born a boy in East Berlin, young Hansel grows to be an epicene teen smitten with a handsome U.S. Army sergeant who pays for the fateful half-successful surgery. Later living as a housewife in K.C., Hedwig learns what it's like to be a woman spurned, then hooks up with teenage lover Tommy (Michael Pitt) to begin a musical career.
These episodes are related in amusing flashbacks, introduced by Hedwig's jaded stage patter with a tiny legion of fans and her bitchy backstage battles with fractious bandmates (Trask among them, on guitar). Uneasily presiding over this motley Spinal Tap-like group is manager Phyllis (SCTV comedy pro Andrea Martin), who hopes to assist Hedwig in suing Tommy—now a solo act and MTV sensation—for reasons both financial and personal. There's also some inter-band rivalry involving an unconvincingly bearded bassist, but Inch doesn't manage such subplots too well.
INSTEAD, THE SOLOS and the spotlight always belong to Hedwig, a Zima-swilling prima donna with Farrah Fawcett tresses, eyebrows plucked to racing stripes, and sparkle makeup that glitters like candy-apple car paint. Self-pity mixes with scorn and vulnerability, since Hedwig desires both Tommy's music royalties (for their co-written tunes) and Tommy himself. "I feel that I must find my other half," Hedwig declares, and Inch regularly references Aristophanes' thesis (from Plato's Symposium) that lovers are actually two divided parts of the same being that pine for reunification. From that comes the effective power ballad "The Origin of Love" and some fanciful animation by Emily Hubley, which helps to enliven the film throughout (and includes a fun bouncing-ball sing-along section).
Hedwig's journey to N.Y.C. to confront Tommy, her supposed soulmate, does lend a certain dramatic trajectory to the picture, but it's still an underplotted affair. The flashbacks are considerably better than the tour-stop shenanigans. (Look for Spanking the Monkey's Alberta Watson as young Hansel's mother; check out the priceless Menses Fair outdoor concert.) And while the Mick Ronson-influenced score has moments of grandeur, we don't need to hear every number from beginning to end. (Hasn't Mitchell heard of fade-outs?) At a certain point the songs begin to feel like filler, and this adherence to stage show structure prevents Inch from fully taking flight.
No matter. In its debt to Tommy, Marc Bolan, David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Toni Tennille (believe it), the movie is almost impossible not to enjoy. "It's what I have to work with," says Hedwig of that "Barbie-doll crotch" down below, and the same spirit of can-do improvisation applies to the whole of Inch. Seeking some kind of apotheosis and self-acceptance for its damaged yet innocent protagonist, the film takes a simple song of hope and makes it sound like an arena-filling anthem. Even if smoking is prohibited in theaters, don't be surprised if your fellow moviegoers stand and raise their lighters in salute.