Hedwig’s colorful crossover from a boy in Berlin to a rock star in America steers the course of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” John Cameron Mitchell’s Off-Broadway musical that made a riotous leap onto the screen last summer.
Hedwig is an extravagant blonde, brilliantly made up, “internationally ignored” rock star who riles odd crowds at cheap restaurants all over America. She is at the same time Hansel, a sweet little East German boy jamming on his mother’s bed to the classics of American rock playing over the radio. Hedwig is simply a person looking for love, for her other half.
The film takes off, and Hedwig’s (John Cameron Mitchell) powerful singing and gestures shock the audience on the screen and in front of the screen. It is all too overwhelming, until she begins to sing gently, reminiscing about her childhood and recounting the story of her life. Hedwig’s sparkling blue eye shadow and luscious berry lips pack the screen.
Hansel leaves his mischievous and innocent childhood in East Berlin when he follows a trail of gummy bears to his ultimate sweet daddy, an American GI. The two quickly fall in love and Hansel undergoes a sex change in order to marry and escape Berlin. Hansel becomes Hedwig, and soon finds herself abandoned in Kansas City with some wigs and an “angry inch” left.
Hedwig does not give up her search for love, however. She sings soulfully of the origins of love, when Zeus split humans in two. Can two people become one again? Hedwig pulls on her wig and sets off to find out, against the backdrop of the reunion of East and West Berlin.
Soon Hedwig finds herself in the eyes of Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a 16-year-old aspiring rock star. But when he uncovers Hedwig’s past as a man, Tommy runs, stripping her of her creation — her songs — and with these songs explodes into a rock sensation.
But Hedwig is a survivor. She travels across America stalking Tommy, performing beside him in small restaurants and reaping minor fame from reports of their relationship. Hedwig never lets go of the belief that love is immortal, and she never gives up her search for her other half.
Mitchell’s Hedwig is beautiful and lovable for her capacity to feel and to give, for her humanity. Nudity and loneliness in the last scene are piercing, because when the wigs and costumes are taken away, Tommy and Hedwig are left exposed and vulnerable.
Mitchell is compelling as Hedwig. He graces the screen comfortably in the role that won him prestigious theater awards, including an OBIE.
As a writer and director, Mitchell also made sure the jewels of theater were not lost in the story’s leap to film. The costumes, the wigs, the head ornaments and the make-up all dazzle. Juicy lyrics set to powerful rock-and-roll music spark love, deep thoughts, violence and laughs.
Mitchell also exploits film with his use of animation. Precious illustrations of people parting and joining, Greek gods and stick figures are inserted throughout the movie.
There are definitely parts of the movie that could be criticized. The story has large gaps and, aside from Hedwig, the characters are not fully developed. If I were a perfectionist, I would probably wonder how exactly Hedwig came to be who she is and what the nature of her relationship with the other band members is, especially with the one with big open eyes who is obsessed with her.
But there really is no method to the madness in this movie. Just let the music take you to Hedwig’s wonderland of exploration, of creation, of betrayal and of love. Trust me, you will walk out of the theater belting out, “if you’ve got some sugar bring it home.” Or even better, “six inches forward and five inches back, I got an angry inch.”