Friday, October 26, 2012

Rocktober: 'Hedwig and the Angry Inch' (2001)

Like a lot of the movies I've written about for this project (The Wall, Tommy, The Great Rock 'n' Roll Swindle), John Cameron Mitchell's Hedwig and the Angry Inch is more impressionistic than it is a straightforward narrative, with musical numbers holding together a loose story about the tragic life of a transsexual rock singer (Mitchell). In the original stage version, Mitchell's Hedwig told the story of her life directly to the audience while backed by a live rock band, and while the movie opens up that format, it still feels at times like a one-man performance rather than a fully realized movie.

The story unfolds in fragments, often through the songs that Hedwig sings, as she tells of growing up as a boy in communist East Berlin, falling in love with an American soldier, getting the botched sex-change operation that left her with the titular "angry inch" and then moving to the U.S. The glammed-up flashbacks to war-torn Germany are definitely reminiscent of The Wall, and the occasional animated interludes also owe a bit to Pink Floyd.

Once in the U.S., Hedwig loses her husband and finds herself stranded in the Midwest, where she meets sheltered teen Tommy (Michael Pitt) and starts teaching him about rock n' roll and deviant sex. He becomes a rock star but disavows her, and so she's stuck playing low-rent seafood restaurants and telling her sad tale to the audience (hence the structure of the stage play). My favorite aspect of the movie was Hedwig's deadpan sense of humor; you'd expect such a larger-than-life character to be melodramatic and bombastic, which she is, but Mitchell does a great job of playing up the sarcastic jokes, and I could have used more of those.

Instead we get a muddled plot that's sometimes hard to follow, hammy musical numbers that are not particularly impressive, and some philosophical musings that fit awkwardly into the story. I really had trouble getting a handle on the relationship between Hedwig and Yitzhak, her husband/sidekick who doesn't really do anything in the band, and hangs out in the background looking vaguely put-upon. Yitzhak's journey figures prominently into the movie's climax, but I couldn't really figure out what it was supposed to mean. He's played by a woman (Miriam Shor) but as far as I can tell is meant to actually be a man who longs to be a woman (and not a woman in drag as a man). It's needlessly confusing and distracts from the central story about the relationship between Hedwig and Tommy.

Too much of the movie is like that -- needlessly confusing and distracting -- for it to hold together as a narrative, and even though I wasn't that taken with the songs, I can see how they might be enjoyable presented in the more straightforward format of the stage show. Hedwig makes for a pretty good rock star, but she's less successful as the main character of a movie.

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