Hedwig and the Angy Inch

When I attended the Great Plains Film Festival in July, one film, which, incidentally, wasn’t being screened in Lincoln, Neb., was on every panelists’ lips – “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

“I still have those songs in my head,” one said.

“Yeah, and I can’t get that bouncing wig out of my mind,” another replied and then smiled broadly, as if reliving the experience.

Although I’d devoured all the press I could up to that point, I could only experience the film vicariously through these Hedheads.

Not anymore.

The Dundee Theatre finally got “Hedwig.”

It definitely was worth the wait.

Adapted by writer John Cameron Mitchell and composer Stephen Trask from their stage play, “Hedwig” tells the story of an East German, born Hansel, who undergoes a sex change so she can marry an American G.I. (Maurice Dean Wint) and leave her oppressive country.

Unfortunately, the surgeon botches the job, leaving Hedwig (Mitchell) with a 1-inch mound of flesh between her legs. Her woes don’t end there, though. When she and her new husband get to the states, the G.I. abandons her in a trailer park in Kansas.

Scraping a living out of her musical talents, sexual favors and baby-sitting, she soon meets and falls in love with the son of an Army general, Tommy (Michael Pitt). She acts as his mentor and muse, preening him for rock music success by giving him his new name, Tommy Gnosis. She teaches him to sing and perform.

He repays her by stealing her music, passing it off as his own and hitting megastardom, while she and her band, the Angry Inch, perform across the country in chain seafood restaurants. (The looks she gets from the older clientele as she performs are hysterical.)

The film, like the stage production, is predominantly an expanded rock opera and tragicomedy. But it’s much more than that. It’s also has a lot to do with gender issues, and is a touching portrayal of one person’s search for who he – and – she is.

“Hedwig’s” origins came about years ago when Mitchell, an actor, met Trask, a musician, on an airplane. The two formed a mutual appreciation society and began collaborating.

What would become “Hedwig” opened at the Squeezebox, an East Village drag club. Then, when the venue couldn’t hold the Hedheads any longer – one woman claims she has seen the show 450 times – the show moved in 1998. At this new off-Broadway venue, the Jane Street Theatre in New York, it played two years.

In 1999, Mitchell was invited to the Sundance Filmmakers Lab in Utah to see if he wanted to be at the helm for the cinematic version. He did. When viewed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, “Hedwig” garnered the Audience and Director’s Awards. It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize.

The first thing a person notices about “Hedwig” is how infectious the songs are. Even my mother wants the soundtrack.

Your foot just can’t help but bounce along … “I put on some makeup … dum dum dum … pull the wig down from the shelf.” Even those diabolically opposed to drag queens can’t resist this soundtrack. Trask is a musical dynamo and knows how to hook the audience’s ear. The best song’s are “Tear Me Down,” “Wig in a Box,” “Angry Inch” and the “Origin of Love.”

Mitchell has a lot to do with the film’s appeal, though. His voice is fantastic and his onstage performance is often akin to an unleashed Tasmanian devil.

He also creates for us a fascinatingly bold heroine, who interestingly enough looks and acts remarkably like Juliette Lewis. And rather than just create a Farrah Fawcett-haired caricature, he gives us a full-bodied walking-talking person we grow to care about.

Playing second fiddles, Andrea Martin, an alum of “SCTV,” gives a lively performance as Phyllis Stein (get it?), the band’s tour manager.

And Ben Mayer-Goodman, who plays the 6-year-old Hansel, giving us the wildest, most gut-bursting dance I have ever seen, and Miriam Shor, who plays Hedwig’s husband Yitzhak, also proved noteworthy.

The only detraction to the film was Pitt, who proved too petulant, beefy and cherub-faced to believably send teen girls into a lustful frenzy.

While some have found the animations by Emily Hubley tedious, these reinforce some of the gender issues and the struggles Hedwig, herself, is going through – of trying to reconcile her two halves.

Finally, hair stylist Mike Potter, makeup artist Debra Johnson and costume designer Arianne Phillips deserve a big mention, because so much of this film is about “a look.”

Potter designed 30 wigs for the film, some of which I wouldn’t mind wearing myself. He obviously poured love into those designs, creating everything from the side bumper bang-look so characteristic of Hedwig to a “What’s Love Got to Do With It,” Tina Turner-inspired spike job.

When you see a room full of all those wig-wearing heads, your heart skips a beat.

Johnson takes inspiration from David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed to create Hedwig’s glam rock look, complete with sparkly, brightly colored eyes and lips. It’s all about excess, dearies.

And those clothes. On stage, Hedwig changes clothes only a few times. In the film, she has 41 different costumes, from ripped up acid-washed shorts to zebra-stripped trousers. It’s inspiring to see creative people going to town.

Although not everyone will like or even appreciate “Hedwig,” everyone should see it, at least once. It’s the best time I’ve had at a musical in decades.

Author: Julien R. Fielding

Julien R. Fielding has been reviewing films, and covering the entertainment industry, for more than a decade. Her favorite genres are sci-fi, horror, action, and anime. She authored the book, Discovering World Religions at 24 Frames Per Second.

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