Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001)

Written by John Cameron Mitchell, based on his play
Original Songs & Music by Stephen Trask
Directed by John Cameron Mitchell
Starring John Cameron Mitchell, Miriam Shor, Michael Pitt, Andrea Martin, Stephen Trask


Released by: New Line Cinema.
Rating: R
Region: 1
Anamorphic: Yes

My Advice: Own it.

Once there was a young boy named Hansel (young version played by Ben Mayer-Goodman) who grew up in East Berlin. Had an absent father (Gene Pyrz) who was driven off by his very odd mother (Alberta Watson). Desperately (we're talking desperately here) wanted to get the hell out of East Germany. When he falls for an American sergeant (Maurice Dean Wint), Sgt. Luther promises to marry him and take him across the wall to freedom and the promise of an American trailer park. However, Luther wants him to...ah...part with his manhood, so to speak. The operation goes awry, leaving Hansel with the titular pissed off remnant of his former sex organ. Thus, Hedwig--and a punk rock legend--is born.

Good God, this is the best rock movie musical since The Wall. It's kind of like that Pink Floyd epic mixed with Rocky Horror mixed with Tommy--but totally different. The brainchild of writer/director/actor John Cameron Mitchell, Hedwig is a tortured soul who on first glance doesn't seem to have much in common with anybody. Let's face it--not many of us have had bits of ourselves cut off for both love and a ticket out of despotism. But, as the film progresses, what's enlightening (and a bit scary) is how much the viewer can relate to Hedwig. Everyone's done stupid-ass things for love. Everyone's gotten screwed over by someone they did said stupid-ass things for. And, of course, everyone's been completely and utterly dissatisfied with who they were and had to come to terms with it.

All of this and more comes across with an aching, bizarre sense of beauty in Mitchell's story--but it's punctuated by Stephen Trask's lyrics and music. The songs are catchy and will smite you with meaning while your back is turned. "Wig in a Box" is a playful boxing match with identity while "Midnight Radio" has that rock epic feel and caps off things beautifully. "Lift up your hands" indeed. And Mitchell's voice (backed up by the capable band and the vocal stylings of Shor) is incredible. Oh no, you can't tell he was a Broadway hit before putting on the wig--no, really.

Besides Mitchell's whacked out yet amazing performance, the other standout of the piece is definitely Miriam Shor--who plays Hedwig's second husband, Yitzhak. Sporting a beard that looks too real to...well, not be real, she manages to, with very little in the way of dialogue--or anything else, really--to convey her own struggle with identity and acceptance. Andrea Martin, who plays the band's manager, makes a great showing, although her best material was left on the cutting room floor (and rightly so--but more on that in a second). Michael Pitt plays the naive young former-Christian-soldier-turned-goth-rocker with all of the wide-eyed pseudo-idiocy that such a role would call for. So the cast is superb across the board. Special points go out to the iteration of Hedwig's band that was comprised of all Asian women. Trust me, it makes sense in context.

Extras on the disc are few, but they are extremely effective. The commentary with Mitchell and DP DeMarco does a decent balancing act of play-to-film comparisons, pointing out the bit players and their significance, and just generally talking about how in the hell they were able to pull off the film with all the various constraints in place. Mitchell also does provide some insight into directing oneself and how odd that is. So that's helpful as well.

The documentary, Whether You Like It or Not, is probably the best bonus docu on a DVD I've seen. Over eighty minutes in length, it takes you through the entire creation of the character, then the play, then the creation of a theatre in which to house said play, and on to the film. It is thorough as hell, with Mitchell, Shor and others to take you through their recollections. It's just flat out fascinating and I wish other films would follow suit with the same attention to detail. Granted, most films don't have the backstory that this film does (or at least the interesting backstory of this film), but still.

You also get a series of deleted scenes and alternate takes, most of which focus on Martin's and Shor's characters. There's a flashback where Yitzhak meets Hedwig at a Streisand drag impersonation contest in Croatia (!?) and there's also some extended versions of scenes where Martin's character has a cell phone surgically implanted in her head. Shor's scenes add a great deal to the character and Martin's scenes give her more to do (and are funny--but what did you expect, it's Andrea freaking Martin, people) but they really would not fit in the flow of the movie as it stands. Mitchell was right to take them out though it's great to have them to watch, because they are worth it. Also included are the full takes of Mayer-Goodman jamming his heart out and dancing on his bed--which is cute. Makes me remember when I used to have that much energy, he said, sighing and continuing to type. These deleted/alternate bits come complete with commentary as well, so that's a plus. All that remains are your standard (although interestingly executed) filmographies and the ability to go straight to a particular song. Which is nice, because as mentioned, the songs are excellent.

What you have here is an excellent thought-provoking film that has a great deal to say and warrants multiple viewings. That, coupled with the superlative documentary and good, solid commentary brings this a very strong buy rating from yours truly. If we had more people like Mitchell out there creating provocative, meaningful art, we might just achieve civilization sometime soon. Highly recommended.

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