John Cameron Mitchell’s off-Broadway camp smash “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” translates to the screen in a way that recalls “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (the audience is even invited to sing along at one point, and transsexuality is an ongoing theme), except with better acting and more depth.
Mitchell co-wrote and stars in the film as Hedwig, who was born Hansel in East Berlin and came to America by marrying a G.I. No way the commies were letting two men get married, though, so Hansel had a sex change operation that gets botched, leaving him somewhere between male and female (the “angry inch” of the title, if you get my drift).
Before long, Hansel, now called Hedwig, is living in a Kansas trailer park with his husband, who promptly leaves him for another guy. Here is some of Mitchell’s best emoting as an actor, conveying in a mournful look (and a great song) exactly how it would feel to have a sex-change operation in order to flee your homeland, only to be left behind by your lover once you arrived in America. Great movies make bizarre situations seem universal, and that’s exactly the case here.
Hedwig gets a job babysitting, while simultaneously starting a loud rock band. The older brother of one of her charges is 17-year-old Tommy (Michael Pitt), a born-again Christian lad who becomes Hedwig’s lover and protege. Hedwig teaches him music and re-christens him Tommy Gnosis; Tommy Gnosis steals Hedwig’s songs and becomes a huge rock star. Hedwig sues, but Tommy denies ever knowing him.
All of that happens before the movie starts, and is told to us through flashbacks and through Hedwig’s songs, which he/she sings at concerts backed by his/her band, the Angry Inch. Hedwig and the band are shadowing Tommy’s concert tour, playing at crappy restaurants as close to Tommy’s venues as they can get.
No offense to “Rocky Horror,” but “Hedwig” has better music, too, written by Stephen Trask. “The Origin of Love” is an amazing power-rock story about how people originally had four arms and legs and two faces, but were split in half by the gods and have ever since had to look for the person who will complete them. This song is crucial to the film’s central themes; fittingly, it’s an incredibly poignant number. Hedwig’s whole life has been about looking for his/her other half; the movie is about that search, and whether we really need another person to help us feel good about ourselves.
Verbally witty and musically appealing, “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is edgy and smart. Mitchell’s direction is visual but understated — plenty of fun things to look at, but not he’s flashy about it. Even better, there’s no Tim Curry in fishnet stockings.
A- (; )