Hedwig and the Angry Inch

The Off Broadway hit "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" does something unusual for an original stage rock musical: It actually rocks. Musically, the same can be said for the film version. But otherwise, those expecting a rockin' good time are likely to be left cold by this screen translation, which often proves a drag in more than the sartorial sense.

The long-running Off Broadway hit “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” does something unusual for an original stage rock musical: It actually rocks. Musically, the same can be said for the film version, adapted and directed by creator-star John Cameron Mitchell. But otherwise, those expecting a rockin’ good time are likely to be left cold by this screen translation, which despite some imaginative packaging too often proves a drag in more than the sartorial sense. Taking Mitchell’s sketchy book far too seriously, the movie grows leaden between its terrific songs, banking on an emotional heft this concept-album-type fable just doesn’t deliver. Fine Line release may have a difficult time finding auds beyond those already converted by the stage show and cast recording.

Mitchell reprises his titular role, created with composer-lyricist Stephen Trask as an NYC concert-club persona well before they expanded the idea to legit book-musical form. Hedwig is a rock star never-was currently touring the Bilgewaters Restaurant chain with her band, which includes gender-blurry second husband Yitzhak (Miriam Shor). Not at all by coincidence, these hapless bookings shadow arena appearances of Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), the young superstar whom Hedwig claims to have “taught everything he knows,” with zero gold or glory as reward. Ergo she’s slapped him with a lawsuit; beleaguered manager Phyllis (Andrea Martin) tries to keep her volatile client from delivering more literal slaps as the former soul mates’ paths recurrently overlap.

Though her auds for the most part seem much more interested in the breaded shrimp, each night the ’70s-bewigged Hedwig bares her soul in a set whose lyrics and patter tell a tragic tale: her own, of course. Born in 1961 — the year the Berlin Wall went up — to a molesting, soon-gone American soldier dad and embittered, party-line-toeing East German mother (Alberta Watson), little Hansel grows up sensing his gender identity is only half complete. Thus he’s willing, more or less, to “give up a little part of myself” when another Yank G.I. (Maurice Dean Wint) offers to marry the now-teenage androgyne. Post-sex-change operation, that is.

Escaping the Eastern Bloc, however, Hansel-turned-Hedwig finds life in the U.S. can be just as dreary, particularly once her spouse skips town for good. Turning despair into grist for the songwriting mill, Hedwig flounders along until she acquires protege Tommy, a 17-year-old military brat and Jesus freak in desperate need of mothering (among other things). But when this relationship grows carnal, and Tommy discovers the “angry inch” bad surgery left behind in Hedwig’s pants, he’s unable to cope. Worse, he becomes a chart sensation on the strength of his erstwhile mentor’s autobiographical songs, which he claims as his own.

Onstage, “Hedwig” is more a conceptual, highly theatrical song cycle than a conventional music drama. Onscreen, its entertainingly outre anecdotes are now acted-out flashbacks, but they don’t gain needed resonance en route. That wouldn’t matter much if the goal was tragicomic camp. As both star and director, however, Mitchell treats his heroine’s saga with a frequently ponderous seriousness its fanciful frame can ill support.

Which is not to say this “Hedwig” lacks wit — it’s just that the satire and fun take a back seat to the much less engaging angst up front. Therese DePrez’s hyperreal production design, Mike Potter’s Glam Era-inspired wigs and makeup and Arianne Phillips’ retro-kitsch costumes offer plenty of visual flash, abetted by Frank G. DeMarco’s often striking color lensing. Song sequences are inventive, with standouts including the country-rock “Sugar Daddy” and terrific “Wig in a Box” (staged around a garish mobile home). Sing-along lyric scrolls and other gimmicks further the pic’s resourceful theatricality, at the same time avoiding outright staginess. Rather less successful are several primitive animation segs by Emily Hubley, which seem out of stylistic synch here.

Yet despite such fillips, as well as numerous funny throwaway lines, Mitchell largely takes Hedwig’s broken-heart suffering at face value — and expects us to do the same long before he’s had time to build any real emotional pull. His Hedwig is a glum glamazon, rather monotonous company over the long haul. Likewise, Pitt’s unhappy-adolescent-cum-unhappy rock star (styled to resemble Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Raznor) is too earnest and recessive where contrasting broader strokes are needed. A murky final catharsis provides too little psychological payoff, too late.

Supporting roster of original stage personnel and newcomers are well cast at a glance, though there’s little room here for them to build on vivid first impressions. Second-billed SCTV vet Martin, too seldom seen onscreen, is particularly wasted.

Labored as the in-between dramatics often are, “Hedwig” still thrills sonically, with Mitchell and company in terrific form (their vocals were recorded live on the set; the onscreen backing band mimes to studio players) on punchily re-recorded original-score tracks, with new ones added by Trask and NYC cult band Girls Against Boys. These glam/arena rawk/protopunk nuggets both parody and pay loving homage to ’70s pop idioms, a balance too often lost in the film’s dramatic elements.

Tech aspects are sharp, with sound mix well rewarding the urge to crank those speakers up.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch

  • Production: A New Line Cinema presentation of a Killer Films production. Produced by Christine Vachon, Katie Roumel, Pamela Koffler. Executive producers, Michael DeLuca, Amy Henkels, Mark Tusk. Directed by John Cameron Mitchell. Screenplay, Mitchell, adapted from the stage work, text by Mitchell, music and lyrics by Stephen Trask.
  • Crew: Camera (color), Frank DeMarco; editor, Andrew Marcus; music, Stephen Trask; executive music producer, Alex Steyermark; production designer, Therese DePrez; art director, Nancy Pankiw; set decorator, Liesl DesLauriers; costume designer, Arianne Phillips; supervising sound editors, Ben Cheah, Lewi Goldstein; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Paul Urmson; Hedwig's hair/makeup, Mike Potter visual consultant, Miguel Villalobos; choreography, Jerry Mitchell; animation, Emily Hubley; line producer, Colin Brunton; assistant director, Patrick Tidy; casting, Susan Shopmaker. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 20, 2001. Running time: 95 MIN.
  • With: Hedwig/Hansel - John Cameron Mitchell Phyllis Stein - Andrea Martin Tommy Gnosis - Michael Pitt Hansel's Mom - Alberta Watson Skszp - Stephen Trask Krzysztof - Rob Campbell Jacek - Theodore Liscinski Schlatko - Michael Aranov Yitzhak - Miriam Shor Hansel (6 years old) - Ben Mayer-Goodman Hansel's Dad - Gene Pyrz G.I. - Maurice Dean Wint