It's not every day that one gets to see a celluloid rock opera about a cross-dressing, semi-transgendered would-be rock star born in East Berlin. But based on what director-writer-star John Cameron Mitchell does with his Hedwig and the Angry Inch, perhaps a few more genre-benders like this one wouldn't be a bad idea.
An unclassifiable mixture of animation, drama, love story, coming-of-age-tale-slash-concert movie, Hedwig is adapted from Mitchell's off-Broadway hit of the same name. The film opens with Hedwig, the cross-dressing lead singer of the band "The Angry Inch," giving a "concert" in Bilgewater's Restaurant in Palookaville, U.S.A. In short order the film leaps into an animated passage and then begins the first of a series of flashbacks showing us how young Hansel, an East German boy born around the time the Wall went up, transforms himself into Hedwig and escapes from the East.
His means of escape is decidedly out of the ordinary. Spotted by a hunk of an American G.I. who at first takes Hansel for a girl, Hansel is enticed by him into have a sex change-which is botched, leaving only the "angry inch" of the title. Passing as a girl, Hansel marries the G.I. and leaves for the States. Once there, Hedwig (he's taken his mother's name and passport), is abandoned by the G.I. and begins to dream of rock 'n' roll stardom. Linking up with Tommy, the Christian son of an army man, Hedwig falls in love with him, writes many (quite good) songs with Tommy, gives Tommy the surname of Gnosis (Greek for "knowledge") and watches as Tommy abandons her and achieves the status of rock god. Will Hedwig also get her richly deserved shot at the big-time?
Stylistically, this fable-like film plays out like an extended "Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars" and indeed, David Bowie is an obvious hero to Hedwig/Mitchell. Many of the songs (written by Mitchell and Stephen Trask) hark back to Bowie's 70s heyday as Ziggy, with a dash of the down and dirty Berlin years thrown in. Lyrically either funny or mock profound, the songs are a treat throughout the film, as are the pun-filled monologues Hedwig treats her always-sparse audiences too (she refers to herself as the "internationally ignored song stylist barely standing before you.")
The tri-hyphenate Mitchell is certainly a very captivating star and a clever writer, but he's not much on the direction front. The film constantly betrays its stage origins and Mitchell's attempts to open it up and make it more cinematic don't always work. The exception being when the Angry Inch play "Menses Fair-A Celebration of Women and Music (no sign of Sarah anywhere, however)" and are relegated to stage nine by the port-o-potties, where they entertain an audience of one while the sounds of main stage celebrations echo in the background.
Still, clunky direction aside, Hedwig and the Angry Inch ends up being an immensely likeable tale, very funny and deadly serious at the same time, about self-acceptance, the need for tolerance and diversity, and the search for love. And, if you worship the holy trinity of Bowie, Lou Reed and Iggy Pop, Hedwig's songs are also pretty darn good.