An exuberant blast of rock & roll defiance could be just the thing to wake up a comatose movie summer. And John Cameron Mitchell, the director, screenwriter and star of Hedwig and the Angry Inch — the stage musical he has triumphantly transferred to screen — is a live wire who knows how to spark a fun party. Hed-heads, as fans of the show call themselves, know that Mitchell plays an “internationally ignored” rocker from communist East Berlin who sings about his dick being cut off in a messy operation that leaves a one-inch mound of flesh where his penis used to be. Hence the name Angry Inch for the band of Eastern-bloc musicians with whom Hansel, now Hedwig, tours the pit stops of America. Also with the band are Hedwig’s bearded husband and backup singer, Yitzhak — Miriam Shor does a knockout job of playing a man who yearns to be a drag queen and run off with Broadway Cruises’ Polynesian tour of Rent — and the invaluable Andrea Martin as Phyllis Stein, the manager who books the Angry Inch into a chain of Bilgewater restaurants where Hedwig regales glassy-eyed diners from the burbs with lyrics such as “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.” Stephen Trask, who makes his film debut as band member Skszp, wrote the galvanizing words and music. The brazen rock energy of his score finds an ideal complement in Mitchell’s screenplay, which manages to be tough, tender and brutally funny. “What’s that?” asks Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), the teen fan and Jesus freak who gets a shock when he first grabs Hedwig’s crotch. “It’s what I have to work with, honey,” says Hedwig with a resignation that turns to fury when Tommy becomes a megastar by stealing her songs. “Tommy, can you hear me,” Hedwig yells with a dead-on Dietrich accent and pursed lips, a la Cher, “from this milkless tit you have sucked the very business we call show.”
Hedwig, which opened to raves off-Broadway in 1998, has spawned productions from Manila to Iceland. A film version was inevitable and, I thought, inevitably awful. The camera would screw up the rock-concert punch of the show, either by flatly rendering a theatrical event or replacing live-performance verve with hyperstylized excess. First-time director Mitchell, ably abetted by cinematographer Frank DeMarco, dodges both bullets by keeping the screen Hedwig anchored to reality and feeling. The decision to sing live, exceedingly rare onscreen, creates a vivid immediacy around which Mitchell makes visual flourishes that underscore rather than overwhelm the film’s emotional colors.
Produced on a $6 million budget that is laughable by today’s standards — the showoff emptiness of Moulin Rouge cost $50 million — Hedwig is rich in imagination and daring. Granted, the film’s structure is basic to a fault. At each Bilgewater stop, Hedwig sings a song that triggers memories and flashbacks. In “Tear Me Down,” Hedwig compares herself to the Berlin Wall, which was erected in 1961, the year he was born as Hansel, the son of an American GI who molested him and a German mother (Alberta Watson) who let him use her oven as a playpen. It was there that Hansel listened to music on American Forces Radio. In a striking shot, Mitchell frames Hedwig as child and man in that oven cocoon: “I would listen to the voices of the American masters: Toni Tennille. Debby Boone. Anne Murray, who was actually a Canadian working in the American idiom. And then there were the cryptohomo rockers: Lou Reed. Iggy Pop. And David Bowie, who was actually an idiom working in America and Canada.” In “The Origin of Love,” derived from Plato’s theory that human beings — having been split in two by vengeful gods — are in constant search for their other halves, Mitchell brings in the witty animation of Emily Hubley. In “Sugar Daddy,” Hedwig recalls Luther (Maurice Dean Wint), the black soldier who proposes marriage as long as Hansel agrees to a sex-change operation — only to be deserted in a Kansas trailer park when Luther runs off with a boy. In “Wig in a Box,” arguably the film’s musical pinnacle, Hedwig finds comfort in the transforming power of wigs, makeup and rock & roll. It’s a superbly directed and performed sequence, with the trailer wall collapsing to reveal a bewigged Hedwig rocking out with her band and inviting the audience to join in on a bouncing-ball singalong. Cheers to Arianne Phillips for the costumes, Mike Potter for the wigs and makeup, and Therese DePrez for the production design. In this number and others, notably “Wicked Little Town,” in which Hedwig and Tommy (Pitt, of TV’s Dawson’s Creek, makes a surprisingly touching Judas) both voice rueful confessions, Mitchell reanimates the movie musical by staying true to character in dialogue and music. The haunting “Midnight Radio” ends the film on a note of reconciliation for Hedwig, Tommy and Yitzhak that is doubly poignant for being played out without caffeinated editing.
Mitchell gives this post-punk, neo-glam rock extravaganza everything in his loaded arsenal of talents. He gets the sound right, the look right, the fun right and — this is crucial — the pain right. His singing has the pow and purity of rock. His acting draws on a core of blunt honesty that allows him to move from humor to heartbreak without getting stuck for too long in the muck of sentiment and pretension. His directing, which won Mitchell a prize at Sundance 2001, breaks new ground by making music come alive on film without compromising its fierce energy or romantic soul. Is this a tour de force or what? As Hedwig would say, you do the math, honey.