Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Friday, January 18, 2002

After several years of reading the Los Angeles Times, I had gathered the impression that Hedwig and the Angry Inch was, far and away, the single greatest musical ever made. I seem to recall that there was an article concerning the musical at least once a week. Something about John Cameron Mitchell. Something about the Stone Temple Pilots perfoming as The Angry Inch in various clubs around Los Angeles. Something about the impending movie adaptation.

Of course, having now moved to the deep provinces of New England, coverage of Hedwig has certainly dropped off. Disappeared, rather. So, the movie comes out with no advertising, no notably press coverage, no word of mouth, nothing. It did, however, show up at the local art theatre here, where it was scarcely populated. I'm sure the subject matter is a tough sell with vacationing bankers from Hartford, but it's really unfortunate because Hedwig deserves all the praise that has been heaped upon it.

In short, Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of Hansel, a young East German rock fan, who has a botched sex change operation (becoming Hedwig), marries an American army officer, moves to Kansas, gets dumped, hooks up with a 17 year old named Tommy, writes a bunch of (great) songs with him, then watches him become world-famous rocker Tommy Gnosis, while he has to play at buffet restaurants. All this is told in flashback, mostly to the audiences of the aforementioned buffet restaurants.

A lot of people have been comparing it to Rocky Horror Picture Show which is really unfortunate. Hedwig really isn't about camp. Yes, the characters dress in absurd glam rock costumes, but within about 10 minutes, it becomes very clear that this movie really isn't about style at all. The whole movie revolves around characters, not costuming. There's never really a moment where the characters take the time to point out how "outrageous" their costumes are; it's just the way they dress. The whole film does an amazing job with pastiche without irony.

This lack of irony is probably most apparent in the songs. It's pretty hard to pull off a song entitled "The Origins of Love" (and containing references to deities from Norse, Greek, and Egyptian mythology) without pointing out how absurd and corny the song is. But the characters accept the song as-is and, more importantly, so do we. It's a really good song. Yeah, the lyrics are cheesy, but the song rocks. Just like good glam rock should.

Yes, the film has problems. It bogs down a bit towards the end. The final sequence is either boring (as some think) or the high point of irony-free pastiche of 70's mystic imagery (as I think). I can't think of another film that has no problem assuming that people are fairly familiar not only with traditional interpretations of Gnosticism, but also the more recent theory that all of alchemy is an attempt to unite the male and the female. I admire any film that assumes (correctly) that much of its audience.

Rating: A-

Reviewed by Padgett Arango
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