Some people are fortunate enough to live in culturally enhanced hubs like New York City, where they have their fingers on the pulse of a lifestyle heavy in the arts. For the rest of us, there’s the movies. It seems like “cool” originates in every place but one’s hometown, and we have only websites, magazines and films to clue us in. Such was the case with the off-Broadway production of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
The buzz for this highly original rock musical grew stronger with each mention and nod in such publications as Time and Rolling Stone, and eventually culminated in an appearance on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” Director, writer and star John Cameron Mitchell donned his transvestite rock star costume and performed for the Queen of Daytime, furthering the hype in New York and leaving middle America to ask, “What the hell was that?”
Just a few years later, we get the answer. The musical has now been adapted into a creative, if not altogether weird, filmgoing experience. “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” is the age-old story of a German boy who falls in love with an American G.I., only to have his heart broken after getting a sex-change operation and moving to the United States. (The operation, like the relationship, goes awry, leaving Hedwig with an “angry inch.”)
Disheveled and left in Kansas, Hedwig finds the independent woman — man — whatever, inside her — him — whatever, and forms a rock group. Along the way she meets a young rocker who soon becomes her lover and prot?g?. Tommy Gnosis, (played in one of the more popcorn-aspirating appearances by “Dawson Creek’s” Henry, Michael Pitt) naturally freaks out once he learns Hedwig’s secret, and uses the songs they wrote together to become a big-time rock star. All the while, he refuses to give Hedwig any credit.
Heartbroken again, our transvestite hero picks herself up and begins touring with her own band, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, following Gnosis across America. He plays Soldier Field, she plays a small Chicago seafood restaurant. Eventually, Hedwig uses her talent, heartache, and the tabloids in her favor and garners the spotlight she so rightly deserves.
“Hedwig” as a musical bucked so many stage traditions and, as a film, it settles for nothing less than unconventional. Making the switch from stage to screen is not an easy thing to do. Some adaptations, like 1975’s “Tommy,” choose to give the viewer a replica of the theater performance, while others, like 1996’s “Evita,” opt for the more cinematic picture, leaving the songs as more of an afterthought. “Hedwig” finds a unique balance; it uses creative film techniques but does not lose its theater quality.
The film employs several creative ways of telling backstory, using everything from flashbacks to animation. And where would a musical be without its songs? Like a traditional musical, the music shows a character’s history and emotions. Yet not so traditional are the specific histories and emotions in songs like “Freaks” and “China Vagina.” But the music still has passion behind it. The tracks in “Hedwig” lose none of their stage feeling, but as a result, make it hard to find a radio-friendly single. Then again, who needs another “My Heart Will Go On?”
The majority of the “Hedwig” stage cast appears in the same roles in the film and adapt well to the new medium. Trask as Hedwig is subtle and emotional and even a little Juliette Lewis-esque. The entire cast tones down their stage acting and turn in effective film performances– again, not an easy thing to do.
“Hedwig and the Angry Inch” has heart, a few good lessons, and originality — maybe too much originality, however. As much as one would like to fully sympathize with Hedwig, the fact remains that it is a weird, weird story. Perhaps too weird for some of middle America. Those who welcome something a little different will most likely enjoy “Hedwig,” as it strays so far off from normality, the beaten path is no longer visible. Those who scare easily should stay at home and flip on the Hallmark Channel.