Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Great Films: Hedwig and The Angry Inch (2001)

Written for the Screen and Directed by John Cameron Mitchell

In the late 90's, actor John Cameron Mitchell and his songwriting friend Stephen Trask combined to write the successful off-Broadway play Hedwig and the Angry Inch. The play, about a "slip of a girly boy" from East Germany, was an almost immediate audience favorite, and ran for two years. Consisting of mostly punk rock performances, and relatively few characters, Mitchell was mostly balked at when he suggested turing his performance into a feature film. That Mitchell was able to translate the energy, mania, and exuberance to the silver screen is truly a movie miracle.

When we are introduced to Hedwig (Mitchell reprising his stage role), she is standing in front of a small restaurant crowd holding two sides of an elaborate cape which reads: "Yankee Go Home! ... With Me!". From the opening shot, the film is erupting with punk rock music and abrasive energy, and we are immediately transported into Hedwig's world. She has taken her band, The Angry Inch, on a cross-country road trip to follow her ex-boyfriend/bandmate Tommy Gnosis (a young Michael Pitt), who has stolen all of her songs and has used them to become huge pop star.

So, while Tommy is filling out Busch stadium, Hedwig is across the street performing in front of a buffet and a hostile audience. Hedwig will refuse to admit that she's actually stalking Tommy, though it's her quixotic journey to come face-to-face with the man who stole from her that drives the plot as a whole. As they continue to perform, Hedwig is able to tell her life story, and we flashback to when she was just a young East German homosexual boy named Hansel with little-to-no identity. He meets an American Army general who offers to marry him so he can move out of Communist reign.

Hansel's mother, Hedwig, tells him to take her passport and her name, and that he will be able to use that to pass off as a woman and become married. One drawback, unless Hansel gets an official sex change, he can never really prove he's a woman, and therefore cannot leave to America. He reluctantly goes through with the procedure, which is botched, and leaves him nothing but his "angry inch". The new Hedwig makes it to America, but is quickly abandoned by the Army general, and out of his dismay, he falls back into his love for music, and becomes a self-proclaimed "internationally-ignored punk rock star of stage and screen".

Written, directed, and starring Mitchell, he is in many ways the sole force behind the greatness of this film. What separates his work in Hedwig from other high-profile drag performances (like say Nathan Lane in The Birdcage or Hugo Weaving in Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert), is that this is not a man recreating the aura of drag queen performance, this is a drag queen performance, and Mitchell takes that aspect of the film just as seriously as Hedwig the character does. We never feel uncomfortable watching Mitchell as a "woman", because he's completely comfortable in the skin of Hedwig, and is even (dare I say it?) a pretty hot woman.

The film genre of musicals have fallen greatly within recent decades. Along with the Western, the genre has failed vehemently to connect with younger generations, mostly because it is a rather stubborn niche which rarely evolves. Hedwig is rather revolutionary because of how it tweaks the movie-musical, while still pandering to most of its sensibilities. Sure, the songs are not actually within the storyline (they are all heard as live performances, in front of audiences), but it is hard not to call this film a musical, because songs compound the film from beginning to end.

Much credit must be given to Mitchell's songwriting partner Steven Trask who wrote all of the music and lyrics for the play and the film. Songs like "The Origin of Love", "Midnight Radio" and the various versions of "Wicked Little Town" sprawl with epic poetry, while "Exquisite Corpse" and the Hedwig monologue song "Angry Inch" are exploding with punk rock chords. "Sugar Daddy" introduces humorous country sensibilities, creating great irony considering the song's subject matter, and the rather large-scale production piece "Wig in a Box" sparks with stage sense, and reminds the audience that this is, in fact, a musical.

I've always said that I'm a sucker for a film with good music, even if it's mediocre. Hedwig and the Angry certainly is not mediocre, but the music supports the storyline so well, that it is only a plus that the songs are exquisite. It sparkles much like a great pop song, eclipsing levels of morality and sexual orientation with its buoyant energy, and did it all without shying away from its transgressive themes. Way before Brokeback Mountain and Milk were so comfortable with their open homosexuality, Hedwig and the Angry Inch waved its freak-flag proudly, and even had the gaul to be sunny about it.

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