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Hedwig and the Angry Inch   B+

Fine Line Features

Year Released: 2001
MPAA Rating: R
Director: John Cameron Mitchell
Writer: John Cameron Mitchell (music and lyrics by Stephen Trask)
Cast: John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin, Michael Pitt, Maurice Dean Witt.

Review by Rob Vaux

Hedwig and the Angry Inch represents an increasingly rare breed: the rock musical. Unseen since the late 1970s, when the likes of Can't Stop the Music all but snuffed it out, it has seen few flickers of life until now. Hedwig is more than just a 70s flashback, however. Alternately bitter, bold, and hysterically funny, it asserts in no uncertain terms that there's worthwhile material in this genre yet. It began as an off-Broadway stage show, a sort of glam-rock character study than spun off into an underground hit. Director/star John Cameron Mitchell has done an admirable job of transferring the material to the screen, using a wide variety of cinematic tricks to downplay its theatrical roots.

The title character (played by Mitchell) has lived a life filled with pain. Born and raised in Communist East Berlin, the young homosexual sees an escape to the west by becoming the lover of an American Army sergeant (Maurice Dean Witt). But in order to gain an exit visa, he needs to submit to a physical exam -- which means becoming a woman. The sex change operation is botched, however, leaving Hedwig emasculated and sporting an "angry inch." She and her lover leave Germany for Kansas, but he soon dumps her for a nubile young boy. She responds by turning to music, reinventing herself as a rock singer and finding a new lover, a teenage army brat (Michael Pitt) who promptly steals her songs and hits the big time with them. Hedwig is left with her back-up band, the Angry Inch, playing at seafood buffets and struggling to gain some measure of respect from a world that has so badly abused her.

Todd Haynes' recent Velvet Goldmine covers the same territory as this, but without the wit or focus that Hedwig expertly deploys. Mitchell conveys Hedwig's story through a combination of flashbacks, monologues, and searing musical numbers. His acting displays verve and poise, portraying a character who has suffered tremendously, yet refuses to give in to self-pity. On the contrary, much of movie is sharp and funny, almost reveling in the tragic circumstances they relate. The jokes hide undeniable pain, yet the humor serves to enhance rather than belittle Hedwig's emotional state. The songs (written by Stephen Trask) display a fierce energy as well, evocative of David Bowie or Lou Reed, and keep close time with the film's other elements.

Mitchell's direction closely matches his performance, and moves confidently back and forth through different periods of Hedwig's life. Though this is his first time behind the camera, he has a natural feel for it and keeps the film from lurching into canned theater territory. The overall effect is of a journey: following this character through a traumatic but often exhilarating search for his identity. That may sound like every other homosexual coming-of-age story, but Mitchell gives it a very universal feel which, coupled with his scorchingly honest humor, helps skirt the more embarrassing stereotypes that these films often succumb to.

If Hedwig has a flaw, it's that it lingers a bit longer than it should. Though only 90 minutes long, the last 10 or so feel forced, as if the editor padded out a few songs to meet their contractual length. It's hard to call an hour and a half too long, but in this case, a little judicious trimming would have helped. Nevertheless, Hedwig and the Angry Inch represents a refreshing change from the business-as-usual dreck clogging the multiplexes these days. A drag queen's rock odyssey may not be everyone's cup of tea, but for those looking for something different, it's a godsend. Like its protagonist, Hedwig succeeds on its own terms, brazenly asserting itself with no regrets or apologies. It may only be an angry inch, but sometimes, an inch is all you need.

Review published 07.23.2001.

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