Hedwig and the Angry Inch (R) ★★★½

Review Date: July 31st, 2001

It takes a pretty amazing script to convince viewers that the life and loves of a transvestite glam-rock star wannabe from East Berlin might somehow be parallel to their own experiences. Hedwig and the Angry Inch does exactly that.


Part Rocky Horror Picture Show, part Velvet Goldmine, part Tommy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch tells the story of Hedwig, née Hansel (John Cameron Mitchell), a transsexual transvestite wannabe rock star whose botched sex change operation left him/her with only an ''angry inch.'' As she tours the pit stops of America with her Eastern Block band ''the Angry Inch,'' Hedwig's search for fame, success and fulfillment with another eventually becomes a search for wholeness within herself. That's the easy version. But to tell the truth, Hollywood doesn't have a label for this intricate film. It's a fun movie about rock stars and drag queens, but it's also a finely tuned look at gender and its impact on human experience. It's a musical. It's a journey. It's a destination. It's David Bowie meets Iggy Pop meets Camille Paglia at a midnight showing of Rocky Horror. It's falling walls and building bridges. ''Listen,'' Hedwig sings, ''There ain't much of a difference/between a bridge and a wall/Without me right in the middle, babe/you would be nothing at all.''


Mitchell, who wrote, directed and starred in both the film version and the hit off-Broadway play, captivates in the title role, creating a perfect blend of rock star and star-crossed lover in his beautiful, complex Hedwig. The chemistry between Hedwig and the object of her affection, her protégé Tommy Gnosis (Michael Pitt)--who steals her music and leaves her to become a rock god--is a sight to behold. Pitt's turn as a Jesus freak-turned-punk rock star is believable, if a bit stilted. Andrea Martin as Hedwig's agent Phyllis Stein plays the only ''straight'' speaking part, in both the comedic and the sexual senses. Completely absent from the off-Broadway play except in voiceovers, Stein might have been better left out of the movie version as well; the subtlety of her straightness is lost on the big screen. Though Martin makes a valiant effort, the character is flat in the midst of this cacophony of music and gender. The big surprise in the film is Miriam Shor's finely tuned performance as Yitzhak, Hedwig's ''husband'' with a voice like a Welsh choirboy and an alternating fixation with Hedwig, women's clothing and Rent.


Mitchell does a fantastic job of translating both character and story from the stage onto the big screen. His script draws universal lessons in humanity from a very specific and uncommon situation, turning Hedwig's quest into a question: Can she, can anybody, ever really be whole? Or does Hedwig's ''angry inch,'' merely manifest the fundamental divide in human experience? Can the wall between East and West Berlin, between man and woman, between me and you, become a bridge? Tommy may be singing Hedwig's songs at Madison Square Garden while she's playing dive bars, but are they really all that different? The questions are asked, answered, and asked again in a different way in Stephen Trask's music and lyrics, a crucial element in the film. If the movie shows us Hedwig's search for her other half, the music tells her story, from her childhood in East Berlin to the ''defining'' moment on the doctor's slab, to her love for Tommy and her final self-acceptance in an operatic finale. Animated sequences further illustrate what could have been an obscure examination of gender flux, creating a mythos around Hedwig's sexuality. Flashbacks tell the tale of Hedwig's life in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall fell and reveal just how she became the rock star hopeful she is in the present.

Bottom Line

We're all striving for wholeness. Hedwig shows us that we may be just an inch away.