Hedwig and the Angry Inch (John Cameron Mitchell, 2001)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch, John Cameron Mitchell's breakout film, is a cinematic translation of his successful off-Broadway musicale. It's hugely helped by the song compositions of Stephen Trask --- from its hyperactive opening song to the more mellow, more emotionally driven slow songs that inhabit the work's core. Trask and Mitchell's collaboration has crossed over to the silver screen with relative ease: the film is independently funded; no studio bickering beneath the translation; thus, the creators manage to keep their intentions intact.
Let's stop kidding ourselves though. True, the melodies, the rhythms, the driving force behind the art are all original but the work won't survive without the centerpoint of everything: Hedwig (as played by Mitchell). He's a cinematic anomaly. You just can't pinpoint what he is: he's had a sex change operation (but without that inner drive that pushes most transgender individuals; he was forced to undergo the operation by his American boyfriend and his mother); the sex change operation is not entirely successful as a bit of his phallus would grow back (thus, the angry inch). Hedwig is a character that uncomfortably sits in a vague middle: fabulous and almost nearly female (yet with signifiers of his male past --- underarm hairs, the prominent Adam's apple); Mitchell casts a female (Miriam Shor) as Hedwig's jealous boyfriend (it connotes another conundrum --- is their relationship homosexual or heterosexual?).
Hedwig's backstory is also wildly interesting. His life is told through the several musical numbers performed by Hedwig and his band in buffet restaurants while trailing rock icon Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt), Hedwig's ex-boyfriend and intellectual property-thief. It's an elementary technique that surprisingly works. A decision to record the songs live as sung (it helps that Mitchell and his band has had years of on stage performances to make it work, and work very well). Mitchell's visuals provide a very satisfying range: The song "Origin of Love," about how the Greek gods physically separated men and women as theorized by Plato, is accompanied by crude animation; a dreamy sequence of Hedwig (then, Hansel)'s seduction by his then-husband shows off the uncontrollable tempting power of Gummy Bears and American candies; Hedwig's childhood in Communist East Berlin is treated with nightmarish candor --- Hansel hidingly wiggles to the ditties of American radio or uncomfortably holes up in his mom's oven just to listen to his American inspirations.
Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more of a statement, a very powerful one on sexual and gender ambiguity, than a concrete narrative. This brings me to my serious problem with Mitchell's film: it's unconvincing (or pretentious) and highly open-ended conclusion. It's as if Mitchell couldn't come up with an adequate end to Hedwig's mission of reclaiming fame and intellectual integrity from Tommy Gnosis, that he just settled with something more symbolic (a cheap way out as it will excite and satisfy those watching the film as an activism or a strengthening of one's choices in life, sacrificing narrative competency). It's my same problem with Jonathan Larson's Rent (Chris Columbus, 2005; which appears a lot in the film probably as a symbol for selling out) which conveniently ended with a fantasy sequence and a medley of songs of affirmation.
It's a huge complaint, but one that didn't dent my appreciation for Mitchell's effort. Above everything else, Hedwig and the Angry Inch is bombastic, at time irreverent, always hyperactive, truthful, and most importantly, highly entertaining.