Hedwig and the Angry Inch
Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
1 hr. 35 min.
Year of Release:
When I saw the Off-Broadway stage version of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” a few years ago, I admired John Cameron Mitchell’s performance as a transgendered rock and roll starlet. A small man, Mitchell grew physically and metaphorically when he donned a “big-hair” blonde wig, bug-eye glasses and a faux-fur cape. He had a powerful, clear voice which imbued the mediocre, only intermittently listenable, songs with enough rage and pathos to keep the sordid, convoluted plot moving.
In most movie rock musicals (“Tommy”, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) the thrills and the shocks come early, and the show runs out of steam about half way through. Once the basic plot—usually a simplistic, unidirectional one—is layed out, there’s nowhere for the story to go. A rock idol is just that: an idol, so character development would be superfluous and unnecessary. All that is left is a self-congratulatory, preachy expose of talent under fire (“I could change the world if people would only open their hearts and minds and understand me!”). “Hedwig” falls into the same trap. The story fades out before it even gets off the ground. The plot comes off as a mere set-up for a series of rock and roll songs and a non-stop fashion extravaganza consisting of drag outfits, each one more outrageous and tacky than the one that appeared before. The costumes have a weary look; the designers no doubt got tired of asking themselves after putting together each outfit: “how do we top this in the next scene?”
Hedwig’s story begins in East Berlin where he was born in 1961, the year the Berlin wall was constructed. He lives with his mother in a Soviet style apartment which is so small that the only place he has room to play is in the oven. As a teenager he meets an American GI named Luther who doesn’t at first believe that Hedwig is a boy. Luther thinks he has to be a girl because he “looks so fine”. He arranges for Hedwig to have a sex change operation (what exactly Hedwig’s feelings on the matter might be are never explored) so Luther can bring him home to the U.S. as his wife. The surgery yields less than perfect results. The surgeons don’t remove all of Hedwig’s anatomy, and leave behind one inch, his angry inch. Luther and Hedwig leave germany, move to the U.S. and settle into a trailer park in Junction City, Kansas. Luther soon leaves Hedwig who then takes up with Tommy Gnosis, a budding rock singer who also walks out on Hedwig but not before stealing the songs that he and Hedwig wrote together.
Drag performers rely more on exhibitionism than they do on interpretation or revelation. They turn illness, sadness and failure into gaudiness and camp. These “actors” claim to honor stars such as Judy Garland, Joan Crawford and Betty Davis, but in the end, they merely denigrate them, reducing their lives to Seconal tablets, whiskey bottles and coathangers. And they beg their audience to laugh at the wreckage. Mitchell, to his credit, doesn’t go that far, but he does give too much emphasis to artifice, and not enough to art. The story of a boy growing up in Communist Germany, escaping to America and struggling as a rock singer should have something interesting to say, but you’d never guess that from this film. Hedwig never seems active. He rarely makes a choice for himself (even that big one where he allows his fiance to set up his sex change operation). He/she falls into things: relationships, a band, minor success. He seems unable to seek those things out on his own, or to work for them.
Alcoholism, sexual promiscuity, transgenderism and prostitution are depicted in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”. Hedwig’s lover, Tommy, becomes a Satanic type rock singer (black stringy hair, black clothes, black tattoos, black eyeliner, and a silver cross on his forehead) after abandoning his Christian roots (he once played guitar in a church group). There are no Christian values to be derived from the material. The only “values” to be entertained are those of self-gratification, self-absorption, and self-aggrandizement. The film is a folly on many levels. It seeks to poke fun at American cliches, but the film is, itself, a cliche. And it can be summed up in one: “it’s all dressed up, but it has no place to go”.