hedwig and the angry inch written and directed by John Cameron Mitchell, produced by Christine Vachon, Pamela Koffler and Katie Roumel, with Mitchell, Michael Pitt, Stephen Trask, Andrea Martin and Miriam Shor. 95 minutes. A Killer Films production. An Odeon Films release. Opens Friday (July 27). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 89. Rating: NNN
what if marlene dietrich's soul were reincarnated in cher's body
and transported back to the glam rock 70s? You'd end up with Hedwig Schmidt, the "internationally ignored" transsexual rock star and creation of actor/writer/director John Cameron Mitchell.
Mitchell's disdainful diva is the centrepiece of the indie film Hedwig And The Angry Inch, a post-punk, neo-glam musical that captured the audience and directing awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival.
Hedwig's life's a mess. She was born a boy, Hansel, in East Germany, where he fell in love with an American GI. In order to escape to the West, Hansel becomes Hedwig and endures a botched sex change operation that leaves her with an inch-long dick and a bad marriage.
Abandoned by her soldier husband in a Kansas trailer park, Hedwig makes do babysitting locals, including a teenager named Tommy. They fall in love, start a band and write songs, which Tommy steals when he goes solo, leaving Hedwig and her band to play cheesy seafood restaurants and plot revenge against her hugely successful ex-boyfriend.
Mitchell first brought Hedwig to life four years ago at the New York club Squeezebox on their punk rock drag night. Up until that point, his career included tiny film roles and guest spots on TV shows like Law And Order and MacGyver. Then he wrote monologues for Hedwig while composer Stephen Trask penned a few Bowie-esque songs. Hedwig was a hit, and the one-night gig grew into a musical -- a kind of glam Rocky Horror -- that moved to off-Broadway, playing for over two years until Killer Films producer Christine Vachon (Boys Don't Cry, Velvet Goldmine) ushered it to the big screen.
When I first spy Mitchell, in the middle of the day on the top floor of the Senator nightclub, I'm amazed at how small he looks stripped of the outlandish Hedwig costumes -- blond wigs, Value Village ensembles and a whole lot of makeup.
He's a soft-spoken man -- I have to lean in to hear him -- but under that slightly tired veneer beats the heart of a steely showman who's spent years perfecting a single character.
"Hedwig developed in a lot of weird places," remembers Mitchell. "We had some unsympathetic crowds. I remember playing to a stone-faced group of Fire Island queens and their kept boys on a beach deck, and I didn't go over too well. It was early on in my Hedwig career; I panicked and lashed out at them. But in the end Hedwig is not a "fuck you' kind of character. She's more like, "(sigh) Let me just tell you what happened and maybe you'll be able to relate. I think you will.'
"She isn't "Watch me,' she's "Watch me deal with this.'"
The movie works because of two things: Mitchell gives a captivatingly funny turn as the bitter star, and the 70s-inspired soundtrack delivers straight-ahead rock and roll tunes that stay with you after you leave the theatre.
"I came from a theatre background, Broadway musicals and such," says Mitchell, "and I remember my first rehearsal with the band. I sang this punk rock song and there was this pause afterwards. I think it was the guitarist who said, "Are you going to do it with that vibrato?' I was crushed.
"David Bowie was my guy, while the band's guy was Lou Reed, who had his glam moment, but that was it. It took me a year doing seven shows a week to get that Iggy Pop kind of abandonment that you need to play Hedwig. It got to the point where I wasn't nervous any more and I could barely stand up because I was so tired, so anything could happen. I'd go pee during the show with the mike still on and talk to the audience while peeing."
I'm struck by Mitchell's performance because he gives Hedwig a poised and self-possessed quality that rubs up against her emotionally unkempt, rock star side -- Dietrich vs. Cher. That's the underlying tension that makes Hedwig so fascinating.
"Yeah, it's interesting. Dietrich didn't let you in," remarks Mitchell. "She created a full persona that was absolutely original, but she was no Edith Piaf or Judy Garland who showed you the depth of their suffering. Dietrich was seamless, and people projected stuff onto her.
"German Expressionist cabaret was all about making a canvas that people could project their own thoughts and feelings onto. I agree that there's a certain amount of that going on with Hedwig -- the audience should see themselves in her. It's very much like Kabuki. The emotions have to come through that painted face."
HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH
In a tacky shrimp restaurant in a mid-American mall, a German transsexual rock star belts out her strange life story in song. Hedwig (John Cameron Mitchell) is on tour and stalking her former lover and protégé, Tommy Gnosis, who's become a global pop star singing songs he stole from her.
This neo-glam musical is a risky venture -- you've got a gender-bending, inherently nasty, drippingly sarcastic heroine singing 70s-style rock and roll. But it all hangs together thanks to Mitchell's complex turn as the bitter but resilient Hedwig, whose romantic spirit keeps driving her toward self-realization. Oh, and there are the groovy songs, which aren't intricate or even ambitious but are catchy, moving when they need to be and surprisingly memorable. NNN (IR)