When I think of the Hollywood musical, visions of grand production numbers immediately come to mind. They take place in lavish ballrooms or delicately crafted outdoor settings to match a specific time period. Prominent examples from recent years include Chicago, Nine, and last year’s Les Miserables. The idealistic lead characters don’t find themselves performing to disinterested audiences at a seafood chain. Landing in a different world is Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which lives in the dreary venues far away from the big time. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) performs like she’s playing to a massive crowd of excited onlookers, but they’re just there to enjoy some bland food. This cult favorite seems like the perfect way to close out my marathon of recent musicals. Adapted from a popular off-Broadway musical, John Cameron Mitchell’s debut provides a unique take on the genre.
What's this story about?
Hedwig (Mitchell) grew up as a boy named Hansel in East Germany and fell in love with an American soldier named Luther (Maurice Dean Wint). He gets a sex change operation so he can get married and leave the country, but it’s botched. Luther dumps him after they move to America, and Hedwig starts a band. She falls in love with Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), but he steals all her songs and become a star. Refusing to give up, Hedwig follows his tour around the country and plays small gigs at the Bilgewater’s restaurants. Tommy refuses to meet her, but she keeps plugging away and gives raucous performances to slim crowds. Hedwig’s still trying to locate her “other half” while being tormented by his betrayal.
Beyond the songs, what genre are living in with this movie?
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is such an original movie that it’s hard to place it in a single genre. It’s a love story, but we rarely spend time with Tommy. Hedwig is looking for revenge, yet she clearly still loves the younger guy. It’s mostly a tale of an isolated misfit who dreams of making the big time. Her background is hardly the typical story of a rock star. Most kids don’t have to learn about music inside their mother’s stove. Even so, the rock ‘n’ roll idea of taking one shot at stardom with a great performance remains for Hedwig. She’s definitely born to run, indeed. Even in the bleak confines of Bilgewater’s, she owns the stage and struts around like they’re playing to thousands of screaming fans. There’s a punk rock mentality but with the on-stage vitality of Freddie Mercury or Iggy Pop.
One of the strongest aspects is the music from Stephen Trask from the stage version. The story opens with a rousing performance of "Tear Me Down" that showcases Hedwig's style. It's also interesting to note the differences between this approach and the later clip of Tommy playing the same song. There are several epic tunes during the middle of the movie that give us a lot of info about Hedwig's past. "Angry Inch" clearly explains his unfortunate anatomical difficulties behind an upbeat tune. There are plenty of excellent options, but my favorite is "Wig in a Box", which puts the lyrics on the screen for a sing along near the end. Mitchell clearly knows that he's making a midnight movie that could have a long life. The key thematic song is "The Origin of Love", which is one of the few that was less inspiring for me. It is helped by some clever images presenting myths from long ago. There's plenty to like with the music, which recalls both the passion of glam rock and its raw emotions.
Are the characters interesting when they aren't singing?
This is tricky because so much of the success comes from the music. Even so, Mitchell does a great job making us care about Hedwig's journey. Her tragic past and continued difficulties are no joke, and she is bumbling through the tour. Mitchell embodies the character so fully that we forget that it's an actor underneath the wigs and make-up. Michael Pitt doesn't get a lot of screen time as Tommy, and that's probably the best move. Keeping Tommy in the shadows makes him more of a symbolic figure than an actual guy. During the final scenes when Hedwig's fantasy takes over, we see how Tommy is essentially the other part of her that's been pulled away. I should also mention Miriam Shor, who plays the male Yitzak. She reprises her role from the stage and brings heart to Hedwig's companion.
Do the art direction and cinematography equal the excitement of the genre?
It's remarkable that Hedwig and the Angry Inch is Mitchell's first movie. Since that point, he's directed only two films (Shortbus and Rabbit Hole). His experience with the stage production makes him the perfect choice to adapt it for the screen. He creates just the right tone for Hedwig's story and understands the character. The art direction at the Bilgewater’s eateries and in the rooms where the band hangs out are just right. Hedwig is performing so far away from commercial venues yet treats those empty rooms like a huge arena. Mitchell energetically presents the songs yet doesn't hide the fact that it's largely a dream world. Even when Hedwig reconnects with Tommy, the chances of true success are extremely slim. The final shots of her walking the streets naked make her loneliness entirely clear. Despite the excitement of getting an audience, it's a hollow feeling that's bound to disappoint.
Next week, I'll venture into our decaying cities starting with The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.