Hedwig and the Angry Inch (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It doesn't seem all that long ago when musicals were one of Hollywood's most popular genres. Each year, studios would commit millions of dollars into lavish productions featuring some of the era's song-and-dance icons: Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and many others. Much has been written over the years about the musical's fall from favor - how it went from being a cash cow to a white elephant. But, regardless of what the studio heads claim, the musical is not a dead art form; it has just changed from. Over the past two years, I have seen four musicals, all of which were made outside of the Hollywood system. None of these have been close to the "traditional" musical in content or approach, but all have shared a common characteristic - like the musicals of the Golden Age, they have used song and dance to tell their stories.

In many ways, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is the most far afield of any recent musical, including the lushly overproduced Moulin Rouge. The subject matter is certainly edgy: a transvestite singer, who, as a result of a botched sex-change operation only has an "angry inch" left between his legs, strives for the same stardom accorded to his successful former gay lover and protégé. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) grew up behind the wall in East Berlin. Living in a cramped apartment with an unloving mother, Hedwig (nee Hansel) led an unhappy childhood and, by late adolescence, he was confused about his sexuality. His chance for freedom arrived when a U.S. serviceman offered to marry him and take him to the United States - provided he obtained the sex-change operation. Eventually, Hedwig ended up alone and penniless in the U.S. midwest, where he met Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), who became Hedwig's musical collaborator. After a rift developed between Tommy and Hedwig, the former hit paydirt and started playing in front of arena crowds while Hedwig and his band continued to toil in small clubs and bars. Now, shadowing Tommy on his U.S. tour, Hedwig is determined to get what he believes to be rightfully his - a piece of Tommy's action.

Although Hedwig and the Angry Inch features an array of over-the-top costumes and a strong (not to mention courageous) central performance by writer/director/star John Cameron Mitchell, the movie's selling point is its music. While none of Hedwig's half-dozen numbers are likely to become Top 40 radio hits, they aren't as outrageous as one might expect from a film with this title. A mix of rock and pop, there's nothing in any of these tunes that couldn't be ascribed to the likes of a Phil Collins or an Elton John (with the exception of one song that could have been written by the Sex Pistols). The musical numbers are gaudily presented (although not rivaling anything in Moulin Rouge) and exhibit a lot of toe-tapping energy. Plus, as is the case in all good musicals, they advance the story by providing a pleasing alternative to the dreaded voiceover narrative.

The film deals with issues of duality and healing. Hedwig was born in a divided family in a divided city. His uncertainty about his own sexuality caused him to become a divided person - not fully male or female. The aim of the film, which is based on a stage play co-written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask (who is credited with Hedwig's score and songs), is to show how Hedwig became the confused, conflicted individual he is and to illustrate the healing process he undergoes to again become whole. At the movie's beginning, Hedwig believes he has already become a butterfly; we learn that he's still in the chrysalis. While all this may sound like heavy, deeply philosophical material, it isn't presented in a dull or lugubrious manner. In addition to the high level of energy imparted by the musical numbers, Hedwig boasts a darkly funny screenplay that is littered with instances of self-deprecating humor. The film wants us to take something away from it, but it also doesn't want us to take it too seriously.

Like The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Hedwig and the Angry Inch manages to tell an engaging story about a drag queen while only sending the most militant homophobes fleeing from theaters. Although sex is certainly an element of the story, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is much more about self-discovery. The theme material isn't subtly presented - this movie goes to great lengths to hammer home its symbolism in an unapologetically flamboyant manner. Perhaps as a result of its low budget, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a little rough around the edges, but that doesn't detract from its charm. It was a huge hit at Sundance and is almost guaranteed to amass a cult following as it makes its way across U.S. theaters during its national release.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch (United States, 2000)

Run Time: 1:35
U.S. Release Date: 2001-08-03
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Profanity, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1