What is most striking about John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not the story of a down-on-his-luck transsexual, nor is it the message that sexual orientation is a fluid concept--it's the raw emotional power that actor/director/writer Mitchell conjures every time his Hedwig steps up to the microphone.
Hedwig is a wanna-be rock star who, after a botched sex-change operation, is left with a...umm... dangling participle: the "angry inch" of the title. The film, based on Mitchell's off-Broadway show of the same name, follows our girlie hero from East Berlin to Kansas (of all places), as she pursues love and fame. The object of her affection is rock star Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), a former Army brat, whom she tutored while he was living in Germany. Gnosis, a devout Christian, enjoys Hedwig's company, until he stumbles upon her "extra talent," at which point he is so repulsed that he steals some of Hedwig's songs and music and leaves her behind.
Tommy becomes a big star, and begins making an arena tour across America. Hedwig follows him every step of the way, singing at local nightclubs and bars. Her quest is riveting, as the audience's emotions are frequently being teased with outrageous humor and heartbreaking sadness. Mitchell's performance is captivating, but it's his screenplay--which contains sassy, smart monologues cracking jokes at the expense of dozens of recent pop-radio legends--that steals the show. An impressive feat, given the exceptional quality of the film.
Pitt, too, deserves special mention. Two years ago, Pitt was another listless actor on Dawson's Creek--a pretty face with nothing to work with. In March 2000, Pitt appeared in a Theater Previews at Duke production of "Birdy." Those who saw that daring, skilled performance could tell that there were going to be bigger and better things on the horizon. Hedwig should serve as a breakout role for the actor; his performance is exceptional.
Performances aside, this film is not just a star-making vehicle. It's not just about love, either. The film is really about music. It embodies the seemingly ancient ideal that rock and roll can save the world. Nowhere is this truer than in the film's best song, and requisite ballad, "The Origin of Love." Hedwig croons about the evolution of sexuality, from a transsexual point of view. Hedwig may make the audience feel hopeless, but her words and spirit and belief in rock-and-roll is inspiring.
Glam rock, originally the artistic endeavor of David Bowie, died nearly 20 years ago. Hedwig resurrects the gender-bending fun of Bowie in an entertaining and pop-educational way, capturing the audience from the outset and drawing us in, inch by inch.
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