Times certainly have changed. Twenty years ago, a musical about an East German transsexual rock singer would have premiered in one of New York's off-off-Broadway theaters or cabarets, run for a couple of weeks, and remained the pleasant memory of a select few. But when John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch opened off-Broadway in 1998, it not only became a hit that crossed over to the mainstream and enjoyed a lengthy run, it also spawned touring companies, Web sites, and a burgeoning fan base. A movie was the inevitable next step, but Mitchell hasn't simply filmed his play -- he's reconceived Hedwig for the screen. The result should please both devoted fans and -- to borrow a Rocky Horror Picture Show metaphor -- "virgins." In fact, it could well be a hit with moviegoers who've had no prior interest in either rock 'n' roll or sexual reassignment surgery.
Part of the reason for this is that Hedwig -- like Rocky Horror's Dr. Frank-N-Furter, with whom she's reflexively (and in some ways too glibly) compared -- functions on both stage and screen less as an actual transgender than as an all-purpose metaphor for self-realization. If this tranny-with-a-'tude can make it, the show seems to say, then so can you. Embodying self-realization on a professional level, Mitchell, in bringing Hedwig to life, has performed the sort of multimedia hat trick that few have attempted, much less brought off successfully. Making his success all the more striking is that this writer/performer -- who first came to light playing Larry Kramer as a child in the latter's autobio-drama The Destiny of Me -- is the one to do so. Short and delicate looking, he'd appear to have a career along the well-trod lines of Anthony Perkins, Richard Thomas, or Dennis Christopher -- aka the "sensitive" type.
Hedwig explodes all of that. Hansel (as the lead character is initially named) -- the East German "girly-boy" who grows up listening to rock on Armed Forces Radio and falls in love with a black G.I. who insists that he get a sex change to come to America -- may sound at first like a victim (or like a retread of Elvira, the similarly unstrung transsexual hero/heroine of Fassbinder's In a Year of 13 Moons). But Hedwig's no victim, as Mitchell works her out.
To begin with, she's tough. Going from an East Berlin apartment to a trailer park in Kansas is culture shock enough. Transgenderism would only appear to complicate the situation -- but not for Hedwig. Though the operation was botched (hence the "angry inch"), her spirits weren't lowered. Likewise, she takes getting dumped by her G.I. boyfriend in stride, facing the world with the sort of determination not seen since Joan Crawford in Flamingo Road. Making ends meet through baby-sitting jobs, Hedwig meets her next amour fou, Tommy Gnosis (the marvelously spacey Michael Pitt). This time the betrayal cuts even deeper, as Tommy steals not only Hedwig's heart but also -- worse still -- her songs. Not to be trifled with, Hedwig embarks on a career of her own, a kind of "stalking tour" in which she and her band perform adjacent to every one of Tommy's engagements.
Unfortunately, Hedwig's manager, Phyllis Stein (the great Andrea Martin), can only get Hedwig booked into T.G.I. Friday's restaurants and salad bars (shots of Hedwig and her crew performing for confused, terrified diners are some of the most hilarious in the film). These gigs don't faze Hedwig; she's an old hand at indignity, having been the only performer playing to an audience of one at the "Menses Fair." But her bass player and newest boyfriend, Yitzhak (Miriam Shor, in a transvestite performance of considerable wit and grace), is champing at the bit to chuck the whole thing and join the Guam touring company of Rent.
It all works out semisatisfactorily. But first Mitchell and his merry crew (including Emily Hubley, supplying delicious animated cartoon interludes) have a go at every rock movie from Viva Las Vegas (Ann-Margret has nothing on Hedwig when it comes to stage presence) to This Is Spinal Tap (whose take on rock tour indignities they manage to top). In the end, Hedwig and the Angry Inch offers an enormous amount of pure, silly fun for the entire non-nuclear family, no matter what gender its members may be.
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