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Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Posted by martinteller on February 28, 2015

Hansel was born in East Berlin, sired by an American GI who took off.  Growing up in a split family in a split country, Hansel experiences a split of his own in the form of gender confusion.  He falls in love with his own American GI and becomes Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell).  But a botched sex-change operation leaves him (her) in a sexual grey area.  Taken to America but abandoned in a trailer, Hedwig meets young Jesus freak Tommy (Michael Pitt) and the two form a musical relationship… but when it turns physical, Tommy can’t handle it and leaves.  Now, Hedwig and her band “The Angry Inch” — named after Hedwig’s mutilated anatomy — are following Tommy on tour around the country… as he performs and takes credit for the songs that Hedwig wrote.

As a glam rock musical/opera centered around a transgendered character, the association that instantly leaps to mind is Rocky Horror Picture Show.  I’ll cut to the chase and say I enjoyed Hedwig a hell of a lot more than that one.  Although undoubtedly campy, it has a sincerity and a solid emotional core that shines through.  Mitchell — who also directed and co-wrote the movie with Stephen Trask — delivers a performance that lets Hedwig’s pain peek out behind the flamboyance.  It’s a character who is guarded behind attitude and persona, while simultaneously being vulnerable and exposed.  Likewise, behind the flash and bombast of the film is a heartfelt journey of hurt, loss, self-discovery and rebirth.

Among the “flash and bombast” are wonderful animated sequences, flights of fancy (like Hedwig’s trailer transforming into a stage) and a narrative structure that tells Hedwig’s story through a marriage of song and flashback.  There’s an inspired bit of gender-bending casting in Miriam Shor as Hedwig’s conflicted sidekick/backup singer/lover Yitzhak.  The casting not only provides a little meta bonus to the issues of sexual identity, but also lends a higher-pitched vocal counterpoint to Mitchell’s glam growl.

The one sticking point for me is that I didn’t love the songs.  There wasn’t a bad one in the bunch, and actually I really liked most of them, but none of them totally won me over.  Part of this may be because I’m not a big fan of glam rock in general.  Another part is because I prefer songs in musicals to be more universal, not so closely tied to the narrative.  This is probably why my favorite was “The Origin of Love”, with the least character-specific lyric of them.  It can be fully enjoyed out of context.  Nonetheless, all the songs are tuneful and well-crafted, and tell an unusual story that is consistently interesting.  Rating: Very Good (86)


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